An expert's point of view on a current event.

America’s Social Contract Is Still Built on Racial Hostility

White Americans’ continued unwillingness to share the country’s bounty with their black fellow citizens lies at the root of social ills.

A protester holds a die-in in front of a row of police officers during a peaceful protest over the killing of George Floyd in Columbus, Ohio, on June 1.
A protester holds a die-in in front of a row of police officers during a peaceful protest over the killing of George Floyd in Columbus, Ohio, on June 1. SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images

The killing of George Floyd presents Americans with an image that has become almost banal by its repeated rendering: yet another victim of a system of criminal justice tasked with protecting white Americans from their black fellow citizens.

Yet the nationwide outrage at another extrajudicial killing of a black man by a white cop has the feel of a historical moment. Maybe this is the moment when Americans recognize how deeply racism has scarred their country’s social contract. As former President Barack Obama said last week, maybe this prompts an “awakening.”

Maybe Americans can finally acknowledge that the lack of empathy that allows a white police officer to kill a black man with the bored, routine expression of a plumber fitting a pipe isn’t just an incident but what defines the United States today. Americans might finally understand how racial hostility has misshaped their priorities far beyond the issue of race itself and how foundational this hostility is to the social contract as it exists today. It is racial hostility—not some special love of laissez-faire capitalism—that allows Americans to applaud the creation of unprecedented wealth next to deprivation on a scale that would be the shame of any other advanced nation.

In an international ranking of poverty, the United States sits rock bottom among the industrialized countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), worse even than Mexico and Turkey. The United States also scores at or near the bottom in many of the ailments whose proximate cause is poverty. It suffers the highest rate of teen pregnancies in the developed world. Almost 1 out of every 4 children live with only one parent, the largest percentage by far among industrialized nations.

Except for Chile, Mexico, and Turkey, no other country in the OECD suffers more dead babies than the United States—most of them born to poor mothers who are often women of color. Whether it is the incidence of diabetes and obesity, the death rate from parasites and other infections, or years lost to premature death, today’s America is considerably less healthy than any other rich country.

Why does the United States allow such deprivation to persist? It is a rich country—perhaps the richest in the history of the world. But why doesn’t it behave like one?

Americans like to blame these misfortunes on globalization and technological change ravaging working families. But globalization and technology struck everybody—the French and the Germans and the Canadians and the Japanese—yet American society buckled alone. The reason the United States is such an outlier is that it has showed no interest in building the safeguards erected by other advanced countries to protect those caught on the wrong side of the wrenching changes brought about by globalization and technology.When the United States made its great liberal leap in the 1930s with the welfare policies of the New Deal, racism stymied it from the get-go.

The white America that has held political power since the birth of the nation decided that if it had to share the social safety net with people on the other side of the racial and ethnic line, it would rather do without one. The eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson put it starkly in his book When Work Disappears: White taxpayers oppose welfare because they see themselves forced, through taxes, to pay for stuff for black people. America’s bloated prisons, idle men, single moms, and dead babies can be traced to this exceptional fact.

When the United States made its great liberal leap in the 1930s with the welfare policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, racism stymied it from the get-go.

On Roosevelt’s watch, workers gained the first national minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and the right to form unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. Older people got Social Security pensions. But many New Deal policies were either explicitly engineered to favor white people or favored them in practice. The Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934 to insure mortgage loans for Americans of limited means, refused to back loans in predominantly black neighborhoods, or for black people period, underwriting the segregation of urban America.

The labor codes established by the National Recovery Administration beginning in 1933 allowed businesses to offer white people a first crack at jobs and authorized lower pay scales for black people. Social Security (created in 1935) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) at first excluded domestic and farm jobs, which employed 2 out of 3 black workers.

Three decades later, when the movement for civil rights finally opened the bounty of the New Deal to people of color, the political consensus that supported welfare policies in the United States collapsed. Medicare and Medicaid, the last government programs inspired by the New Deal ethos, were signed into law in 1965, one year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

That same year, Lyndon Johnson proposed to Americans a “war on crime,” which his successor, Richard Nixon, turned into his lodestar for social policy. Over the next half-century, the criminal justice system—not the welfare state—became the United States’ favored tool of social management.

The United States might not be able protect vulnerable citizens from the shocks delivered by an increasingly globalized world. But it could lock them up. Prison became “a last resort for a whole variety of social failures,” the sociologist Bruce Western said. “The criminal justice system,” Devah Pager told me in 2014, “became the only effective institution that could bring order and manage urban communities.”When the movement for civil rights finally opened the bounty of the New Deal to people of color, the political consensus that supported welfare policies collapsed.

The U.S. criminal justice system was targeted squarely at black people just as welfare policies had long been targeted at white people: Today, almost a million African Americans are behind bars. Though they account for some 13 percent of the population, black people make up 40 percent of the bloated count of men and women in prisons and other correctional facilities.

The reason, of course, is that criminal justice was also a political tool: In the 1960s, Southern Democrats straining to recover the allegiance of white people lost with the passage of the Civil Rights Act took to “law and order” as a rallying cry. Republicans hoping to pry working-class white people from the Democrats’ grasp did too. “Crime” became the code word for racial unease.

“The crime debate was racialized to an important degree,” Western said. “The anxieties white voters felt were not just about crime but about fundamental social changes going on in American society.” Being tough on crime became the surefire tactic to woo white voters shocked by the sight of black people in public spaces that white people had long thought of as their own.

Government spending on the prison system jumped nearly fourfold between 1982 and 2015, after inflation, to $87 billion. That’s more than the government spent on food stamps that year and two and a half times what it spent on unemployment insurance. Even the nation’s premier anti-poverty benefit, the earned income tax credit, cost the government 25 percent less than its prisons.

There is something darkly ironic about America’s stilted social contract: The racial hostility that corralled people of color by limiting welfare policies ended up fencing in white Americans too.

The maternal mortality rate among black mothers is more than three times that of white mothers. Still, for every 100,000 births, nearly 13 white American women died of pregnancy-related issues in 2014. That’s more than four times the rate in the Netherlands, three times the rate in Germany, and almost six times the rate in Spain.

White Americans have a greater life expectancy than African Americans. But the average white American baby born in 2018 will die at least two years sooner than newborn Germans, Danes, Greeks, and Portuguese; at least three years sooner than babies in South Korea, France, and Australia; and five years sooner than newborns in Japan.

There are nearly 20 million poor non-Hispanic white Americans, almost twice as many as poor black Americans. They are, as a group, the biggest beneficiaries of public spending on social programs. In 2014, tax credits and government assistance programs benefited 6.2 million white people without a college degree, compared with 2.8 million black Americans and 2.4 million Hispanics of similar educational backgrounds.Can the United States pull itself out of the social dystopia its racial hostilities have wrought, and build a more empathetic country?

And of late, the criminal justice system has turned its eye on marginalized white people too. Less than 0.5 percent of white adults are in prison or jail, compared with nearly 2 percent of African Americans. Still, the share of white Americans in jail or prison is not only higher than the incarceration rate in other Western democracies such as France and Germany but also that of harsher regimes, such as those in China, Russia, and Iran.

Can the United States pull itself out of the social dystopia its racial hostilities have wrought? Might the outrage sweeping through the streets of urban America today provoke the kind of change that could build a more empathetic country?

I want to hope the United States is capable of building an inclusive social contract, one that can redefine the concept of mainstream American to include everyone. History, unfortunately, does not provide a happy precedent. Just as today, half a century ago riots fueled by racial anger convulsed urban America. In the first nine months of 1967, police confronted African Americans in cities across the country 164 times. In April 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., violent protests broke out again in dozens of American cities.

Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, has researched the political impact of the protests that followed the assassination and concluded that the rioting pushed many white moderates who had supported the Democratic Party to vote for Nixon that November.

The war on crime ensued, perpetuating a toxic social contract with new instruments. With elections coming up in November, don’t be surprised if many white Americans vote for something similar once again.

This article has been adapted from Eduardo Porter’s new book, American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise.

Eduardo Porter is an economics reporter at the New York Times and the author of American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise. Twitter: @portereduardo