Black Gold: Mining Racial Fear in the Service of Wealth

John Ehrenberg



For a whole generation, American politics has been an unpleasant tale of false promises, misplaced hopes, breathtaking incompetence, ideological cowardice and historic betrayal. Some evidence suggests that this period might be coming to a close, but we have to start by acknowledging that a distinctly conservative discourse has shaped the country's public life for more than a quarter of a century. That's a long time, and the Right's ideological success can't be understood unless we admit a few things right off the bat:

  • it didn’t come to power because of dishonest “framing,” thievery, stolen elections or the unprincipled manipulation of national tragedy, although many of its leaders are thugs and there’s been plenty of criminality to go around

  • it wasn’t able to reshape national politics because the general population is stupid, racist, sexist, religious, materialistic or apathetic, although it was able to appeal to some of the most retrograde and diseased trends in the country’s history

  • it didn’t win because a handful of right-wing foundations, think-tanks, southern preachers, politicians and talk-show hosts elbowed their way to the center of national life, conspired to change the country and shouted down anyone who got in their way – although here too, there’s been enough bullying to last a lifetime.

No, the contemporary Right is very different from the marginalized defender of an idle and backward-looking upper crust that it used to be. It rode to power as the patriotic, muscular and courageous champion of an aggrieved and ignored majority. It then reinvented itself as the forward-looking voice of the little man while successfully painting its enemies as elitist defenders of the past’s “special interests.” But that’s the least of it. More than anything else, the Right has managed to reverse the old assumption that all it had was money while the Left had the ideas.

Indeed, the Right has come to dominate national politics precisely because it took advantage of opportunity with patient organizing and close attention to a distinct set of core principles. Its late-70s calls for political restoration, social order, individual freedom and economic opportunity resonated deeply with a population that wanted an end to chaos and insecurity. In an environment of disorder, threat and danger, liberals had nothing to say and the Right ran the table in just a few years. As it rose to power, it constructed a formidable mass base, built an impressive set of institutions, and developed a coherent ideology that wasn’t afraid to address core questions about American politics that were agitating millions of people.

This doesn’t mean that the millions of voters who abandoned liberalism during those years did so because they wanted what they’ve been getting. They’ve been systematically betrayed for a long time, and if the emperor has no clothes now, we need to understand how the Right has managed to hide its hypocrisy for so long. Part of the answer lies in its unity of purpose. The Right advanced on a broad front, but everything it has done about world affairs, authority, race, morality, the state, and the economy has served a single core project. Above all else, its intellectual and political leadership has sought to eliminate social equality as a legitimate aim of public policy. Its success in doing so has facilitated the most dramatic, undemocratic, and dangerous transfers of wealth and power in recent American history. Understanding how it used the language of phony populism to mask economic royalism and political plutocracy might help us see how a country with a proud egalitarian tradition and a long history of social reform has become so deformed and so cruel.

We have to start with one simple, shameful fact: the United States is now the most unequal advanced industrial country in the world. It doesn’t matter how this is measured – it’s the same story across almost all social and economic indices. Whether it’s who makes the big salaries, who walks away with gains in the stock market, who pays taxes, who has health care, who has managed to accumulate wealth, or who has political influence, the past twenty-five years have been the same story of the most extreme economic polarization since the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties. This didn’t happen by accident and is not the unforeseen consequence of economic growth. It’s the direct result of twenty-five years of conscious state policy. The Democrats have been deeply complicit from the very beginning, but it was always the Right that carried the ball. The important question is how they’ve been able to convince so many people to let them do it. As might be expected, race looms large in the answer. It doesn’t provide the answer to everything and doesn’t play the same role it used, but it’s an important part of the story.



Insistent calls for discipline and authority found millions of willing listeners as the Right began to articulate a strategy of national strength and moral rebirth in the late 1970s. Things had seemed bad enough when American diplomats were held hostage in Teheran, when the Soviet Union appeared to be advancing everywhere, and when national politics had apparently fallen into institutional deadlock and permanent instability. But one particular area of public life trumped everything else during this period. Nowhere was social crisis more acute, nowhere were its effects so visible, and nowhere was the Right’s ability to exploit it more effective than when Americans turned their attention to the catastrophe engulfing the nation’s black population.

As black working-class neighborhoods were battered by a series of ruinous plagues, the Right learned how to deploy images of crime, violence and social pathology to assist its larger political project. Skillfully adapting key elements of the nation’s poisoned racial history, it constructed a new attack on equality and the welfare state that suddenly found a mass audience. As deindustrialization destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs and disinvestment shattered prospects for recovery from riots and civil disorders, conservative solutions gained traction in conditions of chronic unemployment, a destructive heroin epidemic, a dramatic increase in violent crime, white flight, a cycle of arson and abandonment, the virtual disappearance of the two-parent black family, the collapse of basic institutions like public housing and schools, and – most important – liberal silence.

Working-class and lower-middle class whites could not easily insulate themselves from these developments and their political attitudes were inevitably shaped in response to them. None of this was particularly new, but the late 1970s brought their anxieties and insecurities to a head and drove many of them to the right. Lurid descriptions of chaotic, dangerous and disorderly black neighborhoods had played important roles in the anti-busing crusades of the 1960s, in George Wallace’s 1964 presidential bid, in the mayoral campaigns of “backlash” candidates like Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, Anthony Imperiale in Newark, Louise Day Hicks in Boston and Mario Procaccino in New York, and in the evolution of neo-conservatives like Norman Podhoretz and his Commentary magazine. Scary descriptions of urban crisis allowed the Right to mobilize white hopelessness, resentment and anger against an ostensibly selfish and demanding black population that had proven unwilling to respect the new rules that came with the victories of the civil rights movement. As blacks insisted on squandering their hard-won equality, conservatives claimed, they became increasingly parasitical on hardworking and productive taxpayers. It wasn’t long before a picture of an ungrateful, demanding and undeserving people began to serve the Right’s more general project of attacking social welfare.

Its core position was easy to make, all the more so because it seemed obviously true that a large stratum of poor people had become dependent on a welfare state that did little but transfer resources from the hardworking, talented and overburdened to the lazy, incompetent and undeserving. A popular narrative suggested that blacks systematically undermined the normal rules of social progress through acts of individual and collective violence, public expressions of contempt for middle class morality, and excessive demands on others. It fed a racial discourse that began to blame an allegedly self-destructive and irresponsible population for its own failure to advance. The “grass roots” sentiment that stood behind this was framed by conservative analysts who claimed that blacks’ disorganized families, lack of respect for civility in public spaces, dependence on the state for direct income and benefits and constant demands for special treatment signaled how different their mores and behaviors were from those of earlier immigrants and hardworking, “normal” citizens.

Right-wing spokesmen claimed that city life was being undermined by the bad habits of black residents who rejected the norms of past generations of the urban poor. It wasn’t long before they were seconded by polemics against the “affirmative” steps that had addressed black poverty, unemployment and social isolation. Although there were significant differences between some of these early commentators, they all agreed on one thing: the most important threats to social peace, political stability and democratic institutions came from below. The black poor were acting in ways that no other large group of recent urban migrants had ever dared, and the reckless demands of their extortionist leaders could no longer be accommodated within the moral framework of elementary fairness. Later arguments claiming that misguided liberal welfare policies had actively contributed to the destruction of inner city communities supplemented the discovery of a pathological “culture” of the black underclass that constantly destabilized and endangered the larger society. Inner-city troubles, it was said, came from destructive values and bad behavior. By the mid-80s, blacks had become symbols for everything that was wrong with the country and were systematically presented as greedy welfare mothers, wilding young people who saw every white person as an opportunity to launch a personal crime spree, opportunistic leaders who cried racism at the drop of a hat, cold-eyed predatory drug dealers, vicious rapists, hyper-sexualized irresponsible women, and the country’s newest crybabies who were always ready to deflect attention from their own failures by blaming others for a predicament that they had only brought on themselves. Discrimination can no longer explain poverty and degradation, a unified right-wing chorus maintained, and the black community must cure its own profound moral deficits if it wants to win  white support for its efforts to advance.

These claims don’t resonate the way they used to, but they were profoundly attractive, deeply destructive – and they stand ready for instant redeployment should the need arise. As anxious whites sought peace and safety, they became increasingly willing to sacrifice many of their own claims for social welfare and began to move toward a right-wing political leadership that was openly prepared to discipline unruly blacks. The pain and anguish on both sides of the racial divide generated a set of arguments that exploited both the distress of the black poor and the anxiety of the white working and lower middle classes. All were hurt by the policies that followed. In the end, American history held the trump cards. The Right’s calls for renewed militarism and the restoration of authority were powerful enough, but they paled in comparison to the historic force that lay behind its ability to take advantage of racial fear. As liberalism, equality and social reform became the point of attack, Irving Kristol’s famous bon mot that “a neoconservative is just a liberal who got mugged by reality” anticipated more explicit racial barbs.

Black crime, illegitimacy, rudeness and welfare were effective images for the Right’s attack on social equality because they were real problems. When drugs, protests, pornography, violence, abortion and obnoxious behavior threatened to overwhelm “middle America,” the claim that the country had lost its moral underpinnings was an easy sell. As liberals proved unsympathetic to their fears, vulnerable whites fled to racial backlash in the belief that it would help them safeguard their hard-won and vulnerable position. Convinced by the Right that they were being squeezed between the unprincipled demands of the minority poor from below and the contemptuous disdain of the liberal elite from above, millions of whites of modest means were ready to abandon the welfare state from which they had gained so much. Kevin Phillips expressed it best:

The principal force which broke up the Democratic (New Deal) coalition is the Negro socioeconomic revolution and liberal Democratic ideological inability to cope with it. Democratic ‘Great Society’ programs aligned that party with many Negro demands, but the party was unable to defuse the racial tension sundering the nation. The South, the West and the Catholic sidewalks of New York were the focal points of conservative opposition to the welfare liberalism of the federal government; however, the general opposition which deposed the Democratic Party came in large part from prospering Democrats who objected to Washington dissipating their tax dollars on programs which did them no good. The Democratic Party fell victim to the ideological impetus of a liberalism which had carried it beyond taxing the few for the benefit of the many (the New  Deal) to programs taxing the many on behalf of the few (the Great Society).2

Old-fashioned conservatives had long been skeptical of popular government, were often explicitly antidemocratic, and tended to embrace the “excellence” that came with tradition, blood and wealth. But the late-1970s combination of a broad religious revival, middle-class tax revolt,    cultural conservatism and racial backlash helped fuel a right-wing populism that went far beyond glorifying the past or defending the status quo. As it became a forward-looking political movement, the Right developed a defense of hardworking, ordinary Americans against the spineless, effete cosmopolitanism of the urban liberal “elite.” Tired of welfare, hostile to higher taxes, frightened by rising crime, worried about their children and suspicious of social engineering, important elements of the New Deal coalition became ripe for the picking.3 As it fanned resentment of  disruptive social movements, demanding women, the youthful counterculture and the black poor, the Right tied racial fatigue and a desire for peace and quiet to an attack on the broad social programs that had built the welfare state. As more and more whites lost their faith in public programs and felt put-upon, misunderstood and ignored, right-wing spokesmen blamed an unholy alliance between a rapacious black underclass and the country’s liberal elite for policies that were endangering their children and threatening their property. Convinced that they were being used and complaining that they just wanted to be left alone, millions of whites decided they were overtaxed, overregulated, underappreciated, and made to feel guilty for things that weren’t their fault. The politics of danger and dispossession announced the beginning of retrenchment, fed by a near-universal sense that uncivilized blacks had to be brought under control before they ruined the country. The country announced that it had had enough.

Left to itself, racial anxiety can’t fully explain what happened in the late 1970s. In alliance with the period’s other forces, it proved to be exceptionally powerful. As liberals refused to deal with a broad desire that welfare be curbed, that deliberately offensive behavior be stopped, and that crime be punished, millions of whites abandoned them. They embraced the Right’s claim that  “culture” explained systematic black failure. The disappearance of explicit racial discrimination only made the argument more attractive. If crime, welfare dependency, unemployment, drug abuse, offensive music, illegitimacy and all the rest can no longer be laid at the door of the racist institutions of white America, said the Right, then the explanation must lie in black individuals and their communities. Hostility to all broad, comprehensive social efforts generated dozens of books, articles and pronouncements claiming that any state action is bound to fail if its target population is not prepared to live in a cooperative and productive fashion. Self-serving and opportunistic civil rights leaders continue to find malign intent and conscious discrimination where there isn’t any, said the Right, and public programs that fail to eliminate poverty demonstrate the power of “values” and the importance of individual responsibility. Liberal love of state activity is actively counter-productive, since it blinds people to the true source of failure and perpetuates a culture of dependence that does no one any good. The poor choose to remain chained by their own history, are unable to take advantage of opportunity and end up fleeing the responsibilities that come with equality. Blacks will never overcome poverty and dependence, it was said, until they drop their demands for “quotas,” “reverse discrimination” and “preferential treatment.” It’s time to administer a healthy dose of tough love, take them off the dole, set them loose, and let them sink or swim.



Nathan Glazer and Thomas Sowell offered intelligent and thoughtful analysis of issues that went beyond liberal pieties, but the Right had broader targets than affirmative action. In 1978, William Simon and Irving Kristol had organized the Institute for Educational Affairs with start-up grants from the right-wing Olin, Scaife and Smith Richardson Foundations. Coca Cola, Dow Chemical, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, K-Mart, Mobil and Nestle made substantial contributions to enable the IEA to “seek out promising Ph.D. candidates and undergraduate leaders, help them establish themselves through grants and fellowships and then help them get jobs with activist organizations, research projects, student publications, federal agencies or leading periodicals.” The Institute began to construct a network of conservative college magazines, and a year after its formation the Dartmouth Review appeared. Its attacks on affirmative action, gay students and women's groups, promoted as expressions of free speech and reactions to liberal conformity, conferred immediate national recognition – and deserved notoriety – on the paper and its editor, an undergraduate named Dinesh D’Souza. After graduation, D’Souza went to work for the Reagan White House. Making the rounds of the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution and kindred safe havens, he became something of a young conservative celebrity and has published a series of books on such subjects as “What’s so Great About America.” Like other right-wingers who appeal to racial anxiety, he does not want to be misunderstood. The End of Racism begins with the claim that the author is a friend of blacks, supports civil rights, understands multiculturalism and believes in equality. But new conditions demand new thinking.4 

D’Souza starts with what’s wrong. The primary explanation for black failure in the United States, he tells us, is “a culture that was an adaptation to historical oppression but is, in several important respects, dysfunctional today.” Neither genetic, psychological nor historical explanations can account for the persistent black failure that sets African-Americans apart from all other groups. Neither multiculturalism nor targeted programs incorporating proportional representation will cure it. No, “black failure to meet merit standards of academic achievement and economic performance” must be met head on and confronted with honesty, bravery and compassion. The United States has  succeeded in eliminating official racism, so the Right’s cultural argument explains that blacks are responsible for creating their own problems – and for overcoming them.

Black rage, white backlash, and liberal helplessness have made a toxic brew of festering problems and inadequate solutions. Togther, says D’Souza, they are the legacy of an antiracism that has been inadequate for years and is now collapsing under the weight of its own failure. Old nostrums won’t do. It’s imperative to start at the beginning, and D’Souza is not afraid to name names. Black “cultural” deficiency, not racism, disinvestment or economic structure, is responsible for failure and explains why equality before the law has not led to substantial progress. Simple-minded multicultural tolerance won’t help. It’s time to break with the illusion that all cultures are equally worthy of respect and frankly recognize that some are better than others. A “civilizational crisis” that afflicts the black underclass above all was D’Souza’s chosen point of attack, buttressed by the unstated but clear implication that the failure of all blacks comes from the same poisoned source: “excessive reliance on government, conspiratorial paranoia about racism, a resistance to academic achievement as ‘acting white,’ a celebration of the criminal and outlaw as authentically black, and the normalization of illegitimacy and dependency. These group patterns arose as a response to past oppression, but they are now dysfunctional and must be modified.”5

D’Souza doesn’t explain how these pathologies once worked for blacks, but that’s not the point. It’s important to understand what needs to be done and who needs to do it. The civil rights movement had gone as far as it could and had succeeded in eliminating official racial supremacy, so it makes no sense to talk about racism any more. Blacks are being childish, self-indulgent and dishonest if they cling to the misguided notion that they live in a hostile society, and they will make no progress until they change their irrational ideas and their consequent bad behavior. Until they do so, they will deserve what they’re getting: white indifference and hostility. Their social pathologies, criminality and violence legitimize what D’Souza winningly calls “rational discrimination” – the sort of behavior that leads a white woman to cross the street when a group of young black men are on the same sidewalk or that encourages a store clerk to follow a browsing black customer around. Unfair treatment does exist in American life, but it’s not racism. It’s “rational discrimination.”

White perceptions that blacks are lazy, loud, parasitic on government, sexually promiscuous and disposed to crime have a “rational” basis that is built on white observation of black behavior.6 After all, said D’Souza, blacks do commit more crimes, are more dependent on welfare, act more obnoxious in public, have more illegitimate children and make more noise than whites. Predictive generalizations like these don’t arise out of thin air, he reassures his reader. There’s a rational basis, built on observation and experience, for claims that blacks know how to dance. There’s a rational basis, built on observation and experience, for the high arrest rates of young black men. There’s a rational basis, built on observation and experience, for cabbies’ refusal to pick up black fares. There’s a rational basis, built on observation and experience, for regarding young black women as sexually irresponsible parasites. There’s a rational basis, built on observation and experience, for the high rates of black incarceration. But none of this is racism, for we have equality before the law. It’s “rational discrimination,” and it’s triggered by bad black behavior. It might be ethically suspect in some instances, but the responsibility for eliminating it falls on those whose behavior elicits it in the first place. Until then, rational discrimination is a perfectly understandable and defensible strategy for coping with a difficult, dangerous and uncivilized population.7 Racial backlash wasn’t a monopoly of urban white working-class neighborhoods. D’Souza’s was its soft, published, considered voice, substituting the language of fairness and worried concern for that of rage and threat:

The last few decades have witnessed nothing less than a breakdown of civilization within the African American community. This breakdown is characterized by extremely high rates of criminal activity, by the normalization of illegitimacy, by the predominance of single-parent families, by high levels of addiction to alcohol and drugs, by a parasitic reliance on government provision, by a hostility to academic achievement, and by a scarcity of independent enterprises. Civilizing institutions such as the small business, the church, and the family are now greatly weakened and in some areas they are on the verge of breaking down altogether. The next generation of young blacks is especially vulnerable.8

The disappearance of stable blue-collar jobs, capital flight from the country’s cities, attacks on organized labor, politically-supported residential segregation, racial profiling, conscious state policies that shortchange urban public schools, a generation of cutbacks in social programs – none of this figures in D’Souza’s world. Neither does the Great Society’s undeniable success in prying open broad sections of the economy, tamping down urban disorder, helping to integrate higher education, expanding the black middle class and denting the hard edge of persistent poverty. No, a pathological and dependent black “culture” has metastasized past the ghetto and now threatens the entire society. All blacks are afflicted with this diseased culture, all are responsible for its continuing strength, and Americans will remain reluctant to help until blacks deal with it. “The civilizational crisis of the black community is not the result of genes and it is not the result of racism,” says D’Souza. “The conspicuous pathologies of blacks are the result of catastrophic cultural change that poses a threat both to the African American community and to society as a whole.”9 The black underclass has become dangerous to everyone. Racism might still exist in society’s nooks and crannies, but it’s vestigial and can no longer explain or justify black failure. The only time it matters is when the black underclass elicits it – and then it’s deserved.

White America had done quite enough, d’Souza announced. Racial anxiety and profiling had turned out to be rational and white suspicion that blacks were responsible for their own misery had been correct all along. Consistent black failure is a sure sign that white generosity has gone unrecognized and unrewarded. A disorganized, ungrateful and pathological population cannot make full use of American citizenship because it has been morally unprepared to do so. The future is up to blacks; if they “can show that they are capable of performing competitively in schools and the work force, and exercising both the rights and the responsibilities of American citizenship, then racism will be deprived of its foundation in experience. If blacks can close the civilization gap, the race problem in this country is likely to become insignificant.”10 

Since official discrimination has ended, it’s an article of faith for the contemporary Right that the remaining difficulties facing blacks are their own responsibility. If only blacks worked as hard as whites, saved as much as whites, studied as hard as whites, trusted American institutions as much as whites, played soccer as much as whites, bought homes as much as whites, went to college as much as whites, supervised homework as much as whites and read for pleasure as much as whites, then the country’s residual racial issues would fade away. A generation of right-wing propaganda seized upon evidence of pathology to blame black communities for continuing inequality and failure. Under the circumstances, many whites were open to the argument that the country’s collective obligation had come to an end with legal equality. It wasn’t long before the Right extended this position to develop a broad assault on social equality and the welfare state.



Two enormously influential books led the way. Published in 1981, George Gilder’s best-selling Wealth and Poverty was followed three years later by Charles Murray’s equally popular Losing Ground. Their argument that the welfare state both caused black poverty and paralyzed efforts to eliminate it has defined almost all subsequent positions – starting at the top with those of Presidents Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes. Aiming their fire directly at Johnson’s Great Society, Gilder and Murray claimed that the most ambitious redistributive effort in modern American history had made poverty worse and demanded that all programs aiming at economic equality be abandoned before they fatally damaged the work ethic, family structure, popular expectations, race relations and the prospects of their intended beneficiaries. Building on Irving Kristol’s earlier claim that the War on Poverty had been “one of the great reform disasters of our age,” they went far beyond his lament that Johnson had done little more than throw money at the black poor.11

 Long before George W. Bush started talking about “compassionate conservatism,” Gilder and Murray were arguing against social welfare in the name of the poor and talking about race without talking about it. Wealth and Poverty was written to address “the devastating impact of the programs of liberalism on the poor,” said Gilder, and from the very beginning the book argued that the welfare state was harmful to its intended beneficiaries and that ending it would be good for all concerned.12  As they defended established wealth and inequality, Gilder and Murray developed an argument against all political programs that aimed at economic redistribution. The idea was to take equality off the table entirely, and the best way of doing so was to blame liberalism for making poverty worse. It would be a short jump from there to the claim that any public program that encourages economic equality was immoral and doomed to fail.

Like D’Souza, Gilder started off on the high road, talking morality, announcing that he wanted to end poverty and inventing a “golden rule of capitalism.” Pursuing one’s own interest isn’t inherently selfish, he assured his readers, for individual gain requires that someone else be satisfied. Capitalism originates in giving and can be sustained only through sharing. Its moral core “consists of providing first and getting later,” every market transaction forcing rational actors to give up something they have before they can get something they want.13 Gilder’s market was a moral network that linked self-serving and generous actors in a matrix of mutual support. Economic redistribution will make moral life impossible because “its deeper effect is to challenge the golden rule of capitalism, to pervert the relations between rich and poor, and to depict the system as ‘a zero-sum game’ in which every gain for someone implies a loss for someone else, and wealth is seen once again to create poverty.”14 Before Gilder identified the moral relationship between wealth and poverty that is “perverted” by too much concern about inequality, he decided to reveal the real cause of poverty.

Gilder started at the beginning: poverty is not the fault of the rich. And he named a much more substantial villain than D’Souza’s favorite, but vague, “culture.” It’s the welfare state that causes poverty. If the past few years have taught us anything, he said, it is that the Great Society was an unmitigated catastrophe for the poor. The fault lay in the inherent logic of all public programs. Johnson’s “war on poverty” was really a disguised war against wealth that had perversely worsened the lives of the poor. It discouraged work, penalized marriage, encouraged men to drop out of the labor force, and made it easy for unmarried women to have children. Gilder saw a general lesson here. Keynesian-inspired social welfare programs that redistributed wealth and sought to create purchasing power put the cart before the horse, and the results were always catastrophic for their intended beneficiaries. They promoted sluggishness, penalized risk-taking, depressed productivity and rewarded personal failure – exactly the opposite of what they should be doing.

Gilder’s “supply-side” attack on Keynesian social welfare policy played a central role in the  developing right-wing assault on the welfare state. It claimed to have uncovered the reason why high-minded projects of social reform ended up solidifying exactly what they intended to uproot. Keynes had it wrong, Gilder announced; supply calls forth demand, not the other way around. A sensible anti-poverty program requires stimulating production first and foremost, and this means that the interests of the poor are best served by helping the rich accumulate, invest and make big profits. Tax cuts, deregulation, and privatization are good for the poor. The state cannot organize an orderly and successful project of social reform. Keynes just didn’t understand how the golden rule operates.

Gilder’s “theology” of capitalism is simple: the rich can help the poor by investing and getting even richer. Accumulated wealth provides the neutral, unencumbered cash that can be devoted to the economic expansion that will help everybody. The wealthy are always ready to invest because they have more wealth than they can consume, but they require fiscal and monetary policies that will encourage them to help others and become the benevolent agents of capitalism’s golden rule. Cutting their income taxes, eliminating their estate taxes, lowering their capital gains taxes, reducing their corporate taxes, privatizing Social Security, and deregulating as much as possible is not just good economic policy for society as a whole. Now it’s the height of morality. One must give in order to get, but first it will be necessary to change misguided liberal economic policy. For the moment, morality and good economic policy mean that the rich need to get before they can give.

American blacks have fared worse than other generations of the poor, and it’s not their fault. It’s because they’ve been treated differently from everyone else, and the results have been catastrophic for them and for American society as well. As long as politicians insist that black poverty is the outcome of racism, technological change, corporate greed, globalization or capital’s need for surplus labor, they will continue to design social and governmental programs that are certain to fail. And, worst of all, they will not pay the price for their failure. That price will be borne by the black poor, for government programs cannot help but institutionalize and reward their failure. The dead end of liberalism, said Gilder, is that poverty cannot be cured or even ameliorated by redistributionist schemes, no matter how laudable their moral intent. If one wants to lift the incomes of the poor, “it will be necessary to increase the rates of investment, which in turn will tend to enlarge the wealth, if not the consumption, of the rich.” Liberalism’s failure to eliminate poverty was inevitable because it doesn’t understand that “an effort to take income from the rich, thus diminishing their investment, and give it to the poor, thus reducing their work incentives, is sure to cut American productivity, limit job opportunities, and perpetuate poverty.”15

American blacks need more work, family, and faith. This is why their culture is so destructive, irrational and counter-productive. But it’s not entirely their fault. Prevented from working by liberal social policies, discouraged from forming stable families by welfare, and suffering from a misplaced faith in social engineering, they will never prosper until they discard the ideology and the social programs that perpetuate their difficulties. Poverty isn’t caused by capital, the rich don’t oppress the poor, and liberalism’s “war against wealth” has so distorted peoples’ thinking that they can’t understand that “what causes poverty is the widespread belief that wealth does.”16 Gilder had inadvertently revealed his priorities – and those of the Right as well. He was never all that interested in poverty. It was always wealth that turned him on.

Only in the Age of Reagan could Gilder have gotten away with painting his defense of the rich as an anti-elitist populism. Liberalism’s hostility to wealth, he said repeatedly, characterizes a snobbish, aristocratic and morally degenerate elite whose influence had to be eliminated if the poor were to advance. All of a sudden, defending the rich helps the poor, inequality is populism, markets express the most elevated principles of social morality, and the wealth of the few helps everyone. “There is something, evidently, in the human mind, even when carefully honed at Oxford or the Sorbonne, that hesitates to believe in capitalism: in the enriching mysteries of inequality, the inexhaustible mines of the division of labor, the multiplying miracles of market economies, the compounding gains from trade and prosperity.”17 The “enriching mysteries of inequality” add a level of religiosity to Gilder’s repeated assertions that the market is the way out of poverty. It is in the economy, not in the protected enclaves of state bureaucracies or in their permanent welfare rolls, that people can learn the skills that will make them successful. Liberalism perpetuates poverty because its welfare state can go no further than make-work and charity. It might not be possible to learn this at Oxford or the Sorbonne, but the home-grown truth is there for all to see. “The “dead end of egalitarianism,” Gilder assured his many readers, is that “to help the poor and middle classes, one must cut the tax rates of the rich.”18

Gilder’s book was so popular because it captured the mood of the Reagan presidency and summed up the developing right-wing assault on equality. Best-selling author, White House advisor, influential columnist and Reagan’s most-quoted source, he was just the man to argue that morality and social health demanded rewarding the rich. There was nothing particularly new in any of this. The unprecedented concentration of wealth that has characterized the past twenty-five years has been accompanied by all sorts of reminders of the Roaring Twenties – which, with the Gilded Age, is the only historic period in modern American history that comes close to contemporary levels of inequality. It’s easy to argue that the moral thing to do is to make the rich even richer if others can be convinced that the concentration of wealth is good for everybody – and particularly for those at the bottom. Ideas about economic equality and social welfare are things of the past, obsolete vestiges of an earlier that will harm those who need help the most. It’s time to break with the old and embrace the new. Enlightened and forward-looking social policy requires that the state unapologetically protect and encourage wealth.

Charles Murray shared Gilder’s deep concern for the poor. As clear-eyed as Gilder about the importance of accommodating the rich, Losing Ground was relentless in its attack on equality and the welfare state. Where Gilder had invested his approach with a thin veneer of moralizing concern, Murray articulated a frank Social Darwinism that identified a generation of liberal social policy as the worst enemy of the poor. But it was always the black poor he was talking about, and when Losing Ground talked about poverty it was really talking about race. Murray wanted to help, he assured his readers, but he was put off by the frustrating tendency of government programs to reproduce what they intended to eliminate. Thus it was that busing programs produced more white flight and more segregation in public schools, welfare payments produced more dependency, the burden of affirmative action fell hardest on working-class white males, and all these programs ended up creating more poverty. Seeking to understand why all this happened, Murray made a dramatic and far-reaching claim: any state attempts to organize social reform will be undermined by “the law of unintended consequences.” Since all government welfare programs end up exacerbating that which they are designed to ameliorate, almost all should be abolished – for the sake of the poor, of course. The Great Society had failed to eliminate poverty –and not because it hadn’t been given a chance. On the contrary, the problem was that it had been tried at all. Seemingly endless prosperity, the discovery that poverty cannot be automatically removed by economic growth and the understanding that the country’s racial problems are not confined to the South had enabled liberals to say that poverty originates in something more substantial than individual failure. The claim that it was embedded in the social system justified state redistributive and regulatory activity. When the urban riots erupted, white America stood ready to make good its historic debt to blacks and manage an acute social crisis at the same time. The Great Society’s community action programs, direct income transfers, manpower development projects and job training encouraged hope that poverty could be licked once and for all.

But they all failed, said Murray, and he continued that “it soon became clear that large numbers of the American poor were not going to be moved off the welfare rolls by urban development schemes or by training programs.”19 But even the failure of federal anti-poverty programs didn’t shake the prevailing orthodoxy about race and poverty – not yet. Despite the fact that experts, politicians and bureaucrats knew better, said Murray, the structural approach to poverty encouraged the poor to believe that poverty wasn’t their fault. Something more insidious and powerful than personal shortcomings must be at work if the War on Poverty had failed so miserably. And so, said Murray, liberals found their answer. “It was the system’s fault. It was history’s fault.”20 And, if “the system”would spontaneously produce injustice and inequality, then it had to be prevented from doing so. Interventionist, proactive and statist interventions would prevent it from doing what it was naturally disposed to do.

None of this was necessary, Murray assured his readers. Black poverty – the only kind of poverty he was ever interested in – had been getting better before the Great Society had ever occurred to President Johnson and the elitist axis that Gilder had identified. The 1950s and early 60s saw improvements for blacks across the board in matters of employment, education, wages, crime and family structure, he said. But all that changed once the government got involved. The federal programs designed to compensate for failure were actually responsible for accelerating the deterioration of the black poor. As the 1960s faded into the 70s, it became clear that the old ways of thinking about poverty, race, crime, and the like were no longer adequate. Things were getting worse, not better, for the black poor despite historic levels of federal commitment and activity. It would have been better to have done nothing.

The number of poor rose during these years in stubborn defiance of the enormous amount of money being spent. Murray was sure of the reason: large numbers of black men had left the workforce and there was an accompanying increase in the number of female-headed black families. Like Gilder, he insisted that restoring male authority in the family was essential to civic health and economic betterment. But liberalism was unable to design programs that would protect two-parent households, and the core insights of the popular wisdom that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 signaled the beginnings of a new approach to a problem that was getting dangerous. “The popular wisdom,” he said, “is characterized by hostility toward welfare (it makes people lazy), toward lenient judges (they encourage crime), and toward socially conscious schools (too busy busing kids to teach them how to read). The popular wisdom disapproves of favoritism for blacks and of too many written-in rights for minorities of all sorts. It says that the government is meddling far too much in things that are none of its business.”21 He acknowledged that much of this “popular wisdom” was mean-spirited, even racist, at its core. But there was something to its basic claim that social policy had to be aimed at civilizing and moralizing the uncivilized and amoral black poor. It was time to change liberalism’s mix of rewards and punishments so people could be held accountable for their actions and others were not forced to pay the price for their failure.

 The failure of liberal social policy, Murray went on, lay in its systematic failure to pay attention to these elementary requirements. Because they were unwilling to get tough with the poor, liberals undermined the link between present behavior and future outcomes and made destructive action rational. If “the system” was responsible for failure, then self-sufficiency was devalued. If an attack on middle-class norms of work and sobriety legitimized poverty, then welfare became a right and self-sufficiency was no longer a goal.

 The net effect of all this has been a disaster, he said. Its core message to the black poor was that, since they are not responsible for their poverty, they were not responsible for ending it. This message took away all the incentives to work, to save, to invest, to defer gratification, to marry and plan for the future that have been the essential conditions of upward mobility for generations of the immigrant poor. When the lazy are rewarded and students who don’t study are passed along with those who do, then working is for chumps and studying is for fools. If the way to get anything from the welfare state is to be a failure, then it doesn’t pay to be a success. If all are victims of “the system,” then no one is responsible for his own failure. Society can’t work this way, said Murray. It must distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor so it can identify those who should be helped and those who shouldn’t. But liberals can’t do this. Their weakness and pandering have created a monster that can be tamed only with a new mix of authoritarian punishment and laissez-faire.

Murray was sure that the welfare state was rewarding what was wrong and punishing what was good. Poverty should not come with entitlements, incapacity should not be valued, and self-reliance should not be discouraged. Simply throwing money at people who are in a difficult position will do nothing to help them better their condition. Liberalism harmed the poor and damaged the wider society, since it “demanded an extraordinary range of transfers from the most capable poor to the least capable, from the most law-abiding to the least law-abiding, and from the most responsible to the least responsible. In return, we gave little to these most deserving persons except easier access to welfare for themselves – the one thing they found hardest to put to ‘good use.’”22 Unable to develop a morally defensible case for redistribution, liberalism has failed to solve the very problems that constitute its raison d’etre and has saddled the entire society with unjustified entitlements, misplaced rewards, counterproductive messages, and a chaotic bundle of contradictory policies.

Murray’s critique of liberal failure touched a nerve, but his central target wasn’t poverty, race, or even the Great Society. He was going after all public programs that aimed at economic redistribution and social equality. His central claim – that no defensible moral position can ever justify transferring resources from the rich to the poor – rests at the heart of the Right’s long attack on the welfare state. Murray claimed that he was trying to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving, but it was always the interests of the rich that he had in mind. Confident that the lives of the poor will be immeasurably improved if they’re cut loose, he ends with a simple slogan that eloquently expresses the right’s defense of wealth and its hostility to social welfare and economic equality. “Billions for equal opportunity, he proclaims, but “not one cent for equal outcome.”0



Whether they were the product of a pathological culture, liberal weakness or the immutable laws of nature, the black “underclass” served as a particularly potent reinforcing image for right-wing attacks on equality. An unchanging picture of predatory youth, drug-addled men, and slovenly women described a parasitical and dangerous population that dominated the way the Right talked to white Americans about the country’s concentrations of black poverty. Its very presence was a constant rejection of the nuclear family, bourgeois morality, the work ethic and the most elementary obligations of citizenship. The image was so powerful because it was oddly comforting to discover a mass of black desperation. Anxious whites could veer from pity to disgust in a heartbeat, secure in the Right’s assurances that intractable black poverty was due to moral deficits, governmental inefficiency and genetics. One needn’t bother with equality, since many blacks are beyond hope and cannot be helped.

The right-wing racial narrative of culture and  unintended consequences was never about poverty. There’s a reason why its focus on “values” was largely reserved for the black poor and why it has studiously ignored the real question of unemployment and social isolation.24 Riding the wave of a widespread white backlash that it encouraged and from which it has benefitted for years, the Right positioned itself as the authentic spokesman of “average” white Americans besieged by greedy blacks and put-upon by arrogant liberals. It constructed a discourse about affirmative action, poverty, welfare and race that drew on both halves of that backlash and allowed it to zero in on equality and the welfare state. Its “cultural” argument blamed the black poor for being dependent and poor, and its Social Darwinism blamed the welfare state for keeping them dependent and poor. It constructed a perfect self-reinforcing frame of reference. It could accuse the black poor of abusing the welfare state, then turn around and accuse the welfare state of abusing the black poor. Both arguments resonated deeply with a white population that had grown tired of feeling guilty. Both were widely available and could be adapted to any given situation – as could a second, related ideological scissors that the Right constructed. If the situation of black Americans was improving before the Great Society, then that proved that governmental programs were unnecessary. But if the situation of blacks had worsened since then, then that proved that government programs didn’t work. Many ingredients formed the period’s arguments about race and welfare. However it was sliced, the Right had its cake and ate it too.

Its real aim was never the color-blind meritocracy of its official position. Like its apologies for militarism and its call for order and authority, the Right’s appeal to racial fear aimed at paralyzing the welfare state, legitimizing inequality and taking economic redistribution off the table. Distinguishing between the poor who deserved help and those who didn’t attached moral judgements of merit and worth to success and failure. Welfare and “reverse discrimination” now explained economic stagnation and moral decay. Low wages, union-busting, restricted opportunities for women, unemployment, deindustrialization, capital flight, an insufficient minimum wage, and the virtual absence of child care couldn’t explain black poverty. Liberalism was at fault.

Economic justice and political democracy soon fell off the country’s racial radar screen. Now “culture” explained why people were poor and why they remained so. Misguided social programs – particularly affirmative action and the Great Society’s efforts at redistribution – only made matters worse. The welfare state hurt the poor by demoralizing them and encouraging a poisonous “culture of dependence.” If one wanted to help the poor, the best thing to do was cut their benefits, send them back to work, put them in jail when necessary, shovel more money to the rich and let the market work its magic.

The right was never really interested in the debate about poverty, but it was virtually alone in  talking about important issues that were agitating millions of Americans. Something terrible was happening to the country’s black population, and liberals were silent. The Right seized on the fear, resentment and anxiety provoked by crime, litter, graffiti, welfare and decay. Liberals didn’t want to go anywhere near these matters, and in the absence of any credible alternative the Right’s account soon became the standard model. It didn’t have to be that way, but liberals were unwilling to make a strong defense of social welfare and clearly assign blame where it belonged. Medicaid and Medicare, AFDC, food stamps, Supplemental Social Security, and indexing Social Security payments to the rate of inflation were significant accomplishments that succeeded in virtually eliminating poverty among the elderly and alleviating the difficulties of millions of others, but the Right had opposed them all. Even Nixon’s surprising proposal for a guaranteed minimum income for families had been unacceptable. Federal housing programs, Head Start, Upward Bound, college loans and grants, Legal Services, the Job Corps – all these highly successful programs had demonstrated the ability of government to act as an agent of change. That’s why they elicited such violent opposition. The Right has always opposed programs like them because they demonstrated that public power can be effectively used to advance economic equality and social justice. But cutting back on social programs is only a means to the Right’s larger end. Everyone knows that big government is inevitable in an advanced economy like that of the United States. The Right’s project is to make sure that it works to the advantage of the wealthy.



The Right used virtually the same tactics in other areas of national life. Whipping up and taking advantage of genuine anxiety, conservative leaders constructed a narrative of military weakness, domestic chaos, wasteful social programs and grasping incompetents to create a  broad assault on the very idea of economic equality and social justice. Having constructed a right-wing populist rebellion against the “elitist” welfare state, they have systematically betrayed those in whose name they pretend to speak and have spent a quarter of a century rewarding the wealth and protecting the property of a tiny percentage of the population.

Defeat in Vietnam, a new arms race and humiliation in Teheran caused millions of anxious voters to worry about their personal security and the future of their country. Frightened  that the United States faced growing threats from implacable foreign enemies, they listened as the Right told them that things had changed and they couldn’t afford both guns and butter. They didn’t want increased military spending to gut social welfare and shovel obscene amounts of wealth and power to the rich, but that’s what they got.

A widespread breakdown in public order led millions of hard-working Americans to tire of social chaos and look for the restoration of peace and civility. The Right took their legitimate concerns about disorder and danger, dressed them up in religious clothes, nostalgic “family values” and the authoritarian language of law and order, and used them to attack social welfare, shared responsibility and the very idea of equality. Given the cowardice of the Democrats and the absence of any credible alternative, these arguments carried the day as the attack on economic justice accelerated. It’s not what people who worried about their kids’ education, the safety of their neighborhoods or the identity of their country wanted, but it’s what they got.

The Right managed to construct a “positive” argument that economic growth has to make the market the central organizing principle of modern life. Here too, a cynical betrayal rested at the heart of all the cheap attacks on government programs and the sunny optimism that an “ownership society” would make it easy for anyone to get rich. Accelerating inequality isn’t what millions of citizens who were offended by welfare, troubled by unresponsive bureaucracies and convinced that the government was wasting their money had in mind, but here too, it’s what they got.

Even as it recast itself as the party of growth, the Right stepped forward as the defender of responsibility and opportunity. Its spokesmen have worked hard to convince millions of people that freedom means the chance to get rich and equality means that elitist do-gooders will take their stuff and give it to others. Here too, populist sloganeering masked a project that has made the United States the most unequal advanced nation in the world. A political program of direct handouts to the rich, regressive tax cuts, deregulation, unprecedented levels of corporate power and historic levels of inequality isn’t what those who wanted to be left alone had in mind, but it’s what they got.

As potent as these arguments were, blacks have always been special – and they played a special role in the Right’s triumph. It was one thing to demand that liberals stop making excuses when cities were burning, children were being shot, public spaces were being defaced and urban life had become dangerous and unpleasant. It was quite another to use racial anxiety in a cynical and conscious project of channeling wealth upward. This wasn’t the first time that the Right betrayed those for whom it claimed to speak. A comprehensive assault on social welfare isn’t what the whites who resisted busing, demanded stronger policing and grumbled about affirmative action had in mind, but it’s what they got.

This has been going on for a quarter of a century, and it’s time to end it. The stakes are as high now as they’ve ever been. Terrorist attack, foreign war, the Right’s arguments, and the Democrats’ bankruptcy have made it difficult to address the inequality that deforms American society and threatens its democracy. The relentless enrichment of the few has led to stagnant wages, longer hours, greater stress, disappearing pensions, heightened job insecurity, reduced income, shorter vacations, and poorer health for the many. Enough is enough. Contemporary inequality is a cruel mockery of freedom and a bitter threat to democracy.

Modern history and elementary decency provide a simple lesson: the more equality there is, the better. Democracy and freedom can flourish only by reaching into the broadest areas of political, economic, and social life. They require that the economy, the state and the society be brought under public supervision. It’s time to name names. The present crisis demand that we speak plainly about who’s been winning, who’s been losing, and why. It calls for clear and decisive political action to reverse decades of organized robbery and corruption. Our action must be driven by the unshakeable understanding that more equality, rather than less, is the measure of a democratic society and the content of a free one.



1. This article is adapted from my Servants of Wealth: The Right’s Assault on Economic Justice, just published by Rowman & Littlefield

2. Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority (New York: Anchor, 1970),  p. 37.

3. See Jonathan Rieder, Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).

4. Dinesh D’Souza, The End of Racism (New York: Free Press, 1995), ix.

5. Ibid., p. 24.

6.  Ibid., pp. 259ff.

7. Ibid., p. 287.

8. Ibid., p. 477.

9. Ibid., p. 478.

10. Ibid., p. 527.

11. Irving Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1978), p. 235.

12.  George Gilder, Wealth and Poverty (New York: Basic Books, 1981), p. ix.

13. Ibid., p. 23.

14. Ibid., p. 10.

15. Ibid., p. 67.

16. Ibid., p. 99.

17. Ibid., pp. 96-7.

18. Ibid., p. 188.

19. Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984), p. 39.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid., p. 146.

22. Ibid., p. 201.

0.44.  Ibid., p. 233.

24. See Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon, 1989) and William Julius Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), The Truly Disadvantaged : The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) and When Work Disappears : The World of the New Urban Poor (New York: Vintage, 1997).


John Ehrenberg is Professor of Political Science at the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University. Author of Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea among others. He is presently at work on a book about the contemporary Right.