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 Dorothy E. Roberts, 
excerpted from
Welfare and the Problem of Black Citizenship , 
105 Yale Law Journal 1563 -1602, 1587-1597 (April, 1996)
(216 Footnotes Omitted) Book Reviews: Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare. by Linda Gordon. New York: the Free Press, 1994. Pp. viii, 419. $22.95; The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty. By Jill Quadagno. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Pp. viii, 240. $24.00

Given the defeat of past efforts to create an inclusive welfare state, how should contemporary visionaries promote the citizenship ideal of welfare? Gordon and Quadagno find lessons for future welfare movements in the failed strategies and alliances that they studied. Racism's crucial role in past setbacks makes it clear that strategies must center on resolving the dilemma of Black citizenship. This part discusses three strategies that have been proposed for resolving this problem: universal programs, multiracial organizing, and Black separatism.

One strategy advocated by Gordon and Quadagno, universalism, seeks to avoid the problem of Black citizenship by soliciting white support for programs that benefit all citizens. A second strategy organizes for institutional change through multiracial coalitions that overcome racism by focusing on groups' common goals. Finally, the separatist agenda eschews white acceptance of Blacks as citizens and provides for Black people's welfare through independent community development. I conclude that none of these strategies by itself can achieve the radical transformation of American political and economic structures necessary to make real the citizenship ideal of welfare. While the universal and multiracial solutions underestimate the force of white Americans' opposition to Black citizenship, the separatist solution underestimates the need for systemic change.


A. The Universalist Solution


Gordon and Quadagno both signal the political vulnerability of "targeted" welfare policies -- programs that are means-tested or designed to benefit a disadvantaged group, such as Blacks. Targeted programs that have a high proportion of Black beneficiaries, such as subsidized housing, are easily plucked from the budget when opposed by white taxpayers. Instead, the authors (Gordon more enthusiastically than Quadagno) advocate programs that base eligibility on universal criteria as a way of eliminating welfare's stratified structure and of building broad-based support. Because people who benefit from welfare support welfare, Gordon argues, "a bigger welfare state is likely to be a more popular one." Quadagno recommends that welfare programs garner support by "reward[ing] those who pay their costs." William Julius Wilson advocated a similar strategy of enhancing the political viability of government programs by deemphasizing their racial objectives: "The hidden agenda is to improve the life chances of groups such as the ghetto underclass by emphasizing programs in which the more advantaged groups of all races can positively relate." By obscuring welfare's benefits for poor Blacks, the universalist reasoning goes, an array of race-neutral programs will garner more support than the current system, which the public associates with Blacks.

Universal programs that benefit all citizens would constitute a significant improvement over the current, inadequate system. National health insurance, for example, would secure desperately needed medical care for the thirty-nine million, mostly working poor, Americans who are currently uninsured. Child allowances would similarly provide an important assurance of children's well-being and eliminate the less visible system of income tax deductions that benefits only those with high enough incomes to take advantage of it. Earned income tax credits offer similar advantages: By subsidizing low-wage jobs, they "blur the distinction between the single parent family moving off welfare, or combining welfare and work, and the non-welfare family."

Faith in universalism, however, underestimates America's problem with Black citizenship. Universalist solutions center on eliminating the stigma that welfare's stratification places on Black Americans, but overlook the degree of white Americans' unwillingness to accept Blacks as full citizens in the first place. Universalism focuses on implementing restructured programs without paying sufficient attention to the social forces that structured the current stratified system and that have similarly stratified every other aspect of American society. Some advocates of universal programs naively believe that the barriers to Black citizenship stem from flaws in welfare policy itself, rather than from the racism that drives those policies.

Universal programs are inadequate for three reasons. First, universal programs alone constitute an improbable guarantee that the poor will receive sufficient benefits. Universal programs have a "trickle-up" effect: Programs designed to benefit all citizens, rich and poor, are likely to benefit rich citizens the most because they have greater political and economic resources to structure programs to their advantage. At the very least, universal benefits must be supplemented with need-based programs to ensure that those at the bottom actually receive adequate aid. Benefits that provide the necessities of a decent life -- housing, nutrition, adequate income, jobs for unskilled workers -- must be administered directly to those who need them, or the very poor risk falling below the minimum level of welfare.

Second, universal programs do not attempt to dismantle the institutionalized impediments to Blacks' social and economic citizenship. They leave racist social structures in place, relying on the distribution of benefits to relieve the problems these structures create. Universal programs are subject to Iris Marion Young's criticism of the distributive definition of justice: By focusing attention on the allocation of material goods, Young argues, the distributive paradigm fails to scrutinize the institutional context that helps to determine distributive patterns. I have a similar fear about universalism's effort to maneuver around racism. The process of making programs race-neutral and therefore more palatable to white Americans is likely to weaken their power to eradicate systemic oppression.

Finally, and most devastatingly, universal programs are hindered by their ultimate appeal to the public's self-interest. Strategizing to expand the welfare state has involved devising ways to convince Americans that helping others is in their own interest. Social Security retains its political popularity because it appeals to Americans' individual self-interest: It is perceived as an insurance program in which beneficiaries recoup what they contributed. Social theorists have noted the political attractiveness of using the Social Security model for other welfare programs; even liberal theories of justice relyon a model of self-insurance.

White supremacy, however, complicates reformers' reliance on universalism and self-interest to promote the welfare state. The assumption that universal programs are intrinsically appealing because they benefit everyone crumbles in the face of racism. Many white Americans remain uninterested in advancing the welfare of Black Americans; many others see helping everyone as contrary to their self-interest because they perceive Black people's social position in opposition to their own. Under American racist ideology, universal programs that benefit Blacks are necessarily antithetical to white interests because Blacks' social advancement diminishes white superiority.

Indeed, the popularity of "universal" social insurance programs has hinged on their formal or effective exclusion of Black people. New Deal reformers could promote Social Security as a universal program designed to benefit all classes only by first disqualifying most Black workers. "Instead of a 'universal' welfare state that could create solidarity among workers," Quadagno notes, "the New Deal welfare state instituted a regime that reinforced racial inequality." Ironically, then, while universal programs are advocated as a pragmatic means of racial inclusion, their implementation realistically may depend on racial exclusion. Quadagno defines universalism as "benefits granted as a right of citizenship." Perhaps universalism is the only politically feasible strategy for expanding the welfare state; but until Blacks are counted as citizens, they will never receive purportedly universal entitlements -- even if denying entitlements to Blacks means denying needed benefits to everyone.

In recommending universal programs, Gordon overlooks the very lessons of history she uncovers. Black women activists advocated universal programs when white reformers rejected them because Black women identified with their poorer sisters and understood that programs to eliminate poverty and deprivation ultimately benefited the entire race. Their motto, "Lifting As We Climb," signified Black women's commitment to collective action and responsibility: "It was not enough for clubwomen individually to succeed; clubwomen shared a sense that they were representatives of their race and their gender so that their goals were unfulfilled to the extent that any member of their community was left behind."

Using the metaphor of family, Gordon contrasts the Black women's collective perspective with the approach of the white feminist reformers of that time:

White maternalism was also a way of separating helper from helped, of constructing those who needed welfare or charity as "other." Their poor, immigrant "children" were, at the closest, "adopted." But [to Black women reformers,] black women's "children" were very much "family." There was little chronological distance, because the privilege of elite blacks was so recent and so tenuous. There was little geographical distance, because residential segregation did not allow the black middle class much insulation from the black poor. Black women activists preferred universal programs because the circumstances of race tied all Black people together as "family." It is precisely the privatized family model of social accountability that robs universal programs of a strong ideological foundation. According to this model, our empathy extends only to people "whom we can imagine as potential lovers or family members." The limits of support for universal programs correspond to the scope of our empathy, and, consequently, our image of the family. Most white Americans, however, cannot imagine Black people as part of their families. The circumstances that bound elite Black reformers to their poor brothers and sisters -- residential segregation, economic discrimination, and social inferiority -- continue to separate the races. While the white feminist reformers were at least willing to "adopt" poor, immigrant children, they excluded Black children from their "family" altogether.

Thus, both Gordon and Quadagno expose how racism has thwarted the citizenship vision of welfare and how it limits the potential for universal programs. Yet both authors leave unanswered this difficult quandary: How would an expanded welfare state compensate white Americans for their loss of racial privilege?


B. The Potential for a Multiracial Social Movement


The previous section argued that the American practice of defining universal rights in racial terms will continue to restrict society's vision of government provision for all citizens. Universal programs that appeal to white Americans' self-interest are unlikely to change Black Americans' subordinated status. We must therefore advocate a citizenship vision of welfare not as the fulfillment of self-interest but as a matter of racial justice. If there is any hope for realizing the citizenship vision of welfare, it must come from a progressive social movement that not only sees a common interest in the welfare state but also is dedicated to struggle explicitly for Black citizenship. Both books suggest the potential and limitations of this type of social activism.

One of the strengths of Pitied But Not Entitled is its vivid portrayal of the social movements and individual actors that inspired and shaped welfare legislation. Gordon is especially interested in probing the ways in which choices appeared to historical actors and their reasons for embracing one design over another. As Deborah Stone notes, the book is less about single mothers than about "how reformers thought about poor single mothers." The Color of Welfare, on the other hand, examines the social forces that dismantled the War on Poverty programs, but fails to investigate the social movement that installed these programs in the first place. The Color of Welfare would have been enriched by more information about the work of Black activists and other progressives who agitated for the short-lived antipoverty programs the book describes.

Neither book, then, explores a movement that successfully implemented a welfare program designed to enhance Black citizenship. One possibility is that a social movement composed of progressive whites committed to racial justice along with Blacks and other people of color will unite to transform the American welfare state. What does the history of welfare tell us about the potential for such a multiracial movement at the turn of the twenty- first century?

The achievements of early feminist reformers suggest that the common concerns of working mothers offer a basis for progressive coalition building. Lucie White calls on middle-class and elite women to follow in the footsteps of their Progressive Era foremothers, suggesting that they replace the Progressives' focus on "pensions to protect poor women from the workforce" with "reforms for all parents in the workplace itself." Theda Skocpol also believes that the way to achieve universal family security programs is for feminist groups to join a broad democratic political alliance, thereby "recapitulat[ing] in contemporary ways some of the best ideas and methods once used by proponents of maternalist social policies." Women's increasing presence in the labor market and changes in attitudes about family and work may "make it possible for the first time since the emergence of industrial capitalism to challenge women's assignment to unpaid caring work." Contemporary feminist activists therefore operate in a context in which they can link together the interests of working mothers of different races who need government assistance to care for their children.

Workers' common interest in economic justice offers another basis for promoting the citizenship vision of welfare. The shift from an industrial to a service economy and the massive exportation of manufacturing jobs overseas have plunged the United States into an economic crisis that threatens the livelihoods of Black and white workers alike. Taking a historical perspective, Margaret Weir suggests that a full-employment policy could have united Blacks and labor unions facing similar pressures of high unemployment in the past. Likewise, Karl Klare advocates an aggressive jobs policy, advanced by a coalition of poor people's advocates and organized labor, that recognizes the common interest of welfare recipients and low-wage workers in raising the labor market floor.

Pitied But Not Entitled and The Color of Welfare, however, cast doubt on the potential for such multiracial organizing. Gordon's research suggests that elite and middle-class women reformers have a vested interest in explaining poverty in terms of cultural and personal weakness, rather than in transforming the structure of economic and racial inequality. Quadagno portrays white trade unions as the principal antagonists of federal affirmative action efforts during the 1960s and doubts that even full employment would have reduced union racism. Far from linking workers and poor people across racial lines, the economic crisis has led many whites to blame welfare recipients for wasting their tax dollars and affirmative action for stealing their jobs. We are witnessing the abolition of programs designed to foster Black citizenship, not their promotion by a multiracial workers' movement.

It seems that even progressive whites falter on the problem of Black citizenship. Their own perspective on social problems and stake in the racial order raise some of the same difficulties for multiracial organizing that confront universalist programs. Perhaps due to their equation of Black nationalism with white supremacy, progressive whites have found it hard to comprehend the liberating meaning of race consciousness. The history of racial segregation as a means of white domination makes separatist efforts on the part of Blacks look to many whites like a form of racism to be rejected. Years ago, Harold Cruse noted the inability of white progressives to cope with racial equality and Black activism in a scathing indictment of the internal racial politics of Marxist groups:

Ironically, even within Marxist organizations Negroes have had to function as a numerical minority, and have been subordinated to the will of a white majority on all crucial matters of racial policy. What the Marxists called "Negro-white unity" within their organizations was, in reality, white domination. Thus the Marxist movement took a position of favoring a racial equality that did not even exist within the organization of the movement itself. . . . Marxism has stripped the Negro question of every theoretical concern for the class, color, ethnic, economic, cultural, psychological, and "national" complexities. Cruse also faulted these progressives for failing to explain how socialism would eliminate white supremacy and foster Blacks' cultural identity:

What guarantee do Negroes have that socialism means racial equality any more than does capitalist democracy? Would socialism mean the assimilation of the Negro into the dominant racial group? . . . In other words, the failure of American capitalist abundance to help solve the crying problems of the Negro's existence cannot be fobbed off on some future socialist heaven. It is this persistent racism and resulting weakness of progressive movements in America that lead some well-meaning strategists to relinquish hope in radical change and to rely instead on universal programs.


C. Separatism and Black Community Development


The problem that Black citizenship poses for the American welfare state may point organizing in another direction. Cognizant of the futility of appeals to whites' self-interest and common concerns, Blacks might turn their efforts inward. The notion of Black citizenship is not a predicament reserved for white people; it is a problem for Black folks as well. Blacks are skeptical not only about the prospect of their acceptance in American society, but also about whether, "should complete integration somehow be achieved, it would prove to be really desirable, for its price may be the total absorption and disappearance of the race -- a sort of painless genocide." Why should Blacks petition for citizenship in a nation that disparages their character, denies them its material benefits, and treats them with brutality? The project of seeking inclusion in a welfare system designed to denigrate Blacks seems extremely suspect, to say the least. Thus, an alternative to the universalist and coalition-building strategies for welfare reform is for Blacks to repudiate the quest for citizenship altogether.

The separatist alternative is supported by Derrick Bell's heavy dose of "racial realism." Bell draws our attention to whites' persistent refusal to abdicate their racial domination and their repeated sacrificing of Black people's rights. Despite decades devoted to civil rights protest and litigation, the economic and political condition of the majority of Blacks has worsened. Bell draws the conclusion that our commitment to racial equality is not only a miserable failure but may even perpetuate Blacks' disempowerment. Bell therefore adopts the following bleak manifesto:

Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary "peaks of progress," short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to- accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it and move on to adopt policies based on what I call: "Racial Realism." This mind-set or philosophy requires us to acknowledge the permanence of our subordinate status. That acknowledgement enables us to avoid despair, and frees us to imagine and implement racial strategies that can bring fulfillment and even triumph. For Bell, Blacks may triumph by engaging in oppositional acts that defy the white power structure without harboring the unrealistic expectation of toppling it.

In light of these racial realities, many Blacks favor building separatist economic and political institutions in lieu of reliance on government aid. This rejection of the American welfare state is part of the long tradition of Black nationalism that sees Blacks as forming a distinct community that should resist assimilation into white society. Black nationalists have condemned the integrationist vision of the civil rights movement for capitulating to white cultural imperialism and advocating ineffective remedies for racial subordination. Because Blacks can only expect to receive the degrading form of welfare from white America, a more plausible and liberating strategy is to strive for Black economic self-sufficiency.

Regina Austin, for example, advocates that Blacks concentrate their struggle on developing the Black public sphere, which she describes as "a space in which blacks generate and consolidate wealth through the production of goods and services and the creation of markets and audiences that fully utilize their labor power and creativity." Rather than appealing to whites' self-interest, fostering the Black public sphere enables Blacks to pursue collectively their own self-interest. This approach answers Bell's concerns about the permanence of racism by providing for Black people's welfare without the need for white people's assistance. As Austin explains:

Although blacks must resist white supremacy at every turn, blacks should also recognize the inadequacy of the concessions white supremacy is likely to accord them and proceed on the assumption that they must generate and sustain a black public sphere, that is, a space in which they can pursue the good life both in spite of white people and without regard to them. Perhaps the faith in Black economic self-sufficiency is utopian, but no more so than is the faith in white people's miraculous inclusion of Blacks in the economic mainstream.

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