In her new book, The White Wall: How Big Finance Bankrupts Black America, New York Times finance reporter Emily Flitter shares the absurd experiences of Black banking professionals like Ricardo Peters, a JPMorgan Chase employee.

For instance, Peters was “assigned a three-letter identification code for use inside JPMorgan’s computer systems, and the code was APE.” When he asked a superior to change the code, which had invited teasing from his coworkers, his request was denied.

Flitter depicts white financial executives, thinking the coast is clear, raising their middle fingers after diversity meetings or calling initiatives putatively designed to attract more Black clients as “Urban Markets,” or outright denying financial services to Blacks who have the money and credit-worthiness for those services on the basis (completely unfounded) that those prospective Black clients are on welfare and haven’t worked hard enough for their money.

Those sentiments are par for the course in white-dominated workspaces these days. Scholars like Jason Hackworth and Lawrence Bobo have outlined the formation of this white-collar racism. Hackworth, summarizing research by Bobo and his colleagues, writes that “Jim Crow racism disintegrated in the 1950s and 1960s because of the confluence of two major factors: the activism of the civil rights movement that punctured notions of biological inferiority and the erosion of the southern agricultural economic system upon which Jim Crow was based.

“These events did not, however, make racism disappear. Rather, it morphed to laissez-faire racism,” which is racism that “blames blacks themselves for the black-white gap in social economic standing and actively resists meaningful efforts to ameliorate America’s racist social conditions and institutions.”

While Jim Crow racism was premised on Black biological inferiority, laissez-faire racism is premised on notions of Black cultural inferiority, Hackworth writes in his 2019 book Manufacturing Decline: How Racism and the Conservative Movement Crush the American Rust Belt.

Hackworth adds that laissez-faire racism “provokes, and is provoked by, a sensibility that justifies, disregards, or individualizes disparate impact … [it] does not acknowledge racial animus unless it is formally stated in the most openly bigoted way. It animates and generates strenuous denials of racial intent in a range of policies that clearly impact black people more than white. As long as the language of Jim Crow racism is not used in policy documents or justifications, conservatives (and many white moderates) insist it cannot be racist.”

Hackworth argues that since the 1960s and 1970s, conservatives and neoliberals have deployed laissez-faire racism to become the dominant political force in America, replacing a New Deal emphasis on bank regulations, antimonopoly protections, labor laws and social welfare programs with an emphasis on what Hackworth calls “organized deprivation,” or an emphasis on austerity, limiting local autonomy, disembedding the market from political constraints, and punishing unruly people.

Organized deprivation, the author adds, is rooted in a white reaction to Black political progress, namely the success of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

In essence, without the power to enslave, segregate and plunder outright, the forces of white supremacy got savvier, deploying dog-whistle imagery and language that, like a double-edged sword, appealed to both the “racially anxious and the racially resentful.”

“Racially resentful white voters view pathology and danger as innate to black people or at least the result of poor individual choices” — a sensibility fueled by “the remnants of Jim Crow racism and by those who feel that the civil rights movement was an unjustified assault on their white privilege.” Meanwhile, racially anxious white voters “do not believe themselves to be resentful” but may be attracted to ideas like low taxes and small government.

Laissez-faire racism creates proxies like Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen or the 1980s “super predators” that are powerful metaphors, arousing both anxiety and resentment, which fuel electoral success and policies premised on austerity for everyone but the non-wealthy, punishment for the poor, and tax cuts for the wealthy.

A pivotal year

The year 1968 was a turning point in the conservative campaign to leverage laissez-faire racism for political gain. The presidential election that year included George Wallace, the openly white-supremacist governor of Alabama; Richard Nixon, the former vice president and “law and order” candidate who was testing out the laissez-faire racism that would help his party capture the South and route Democratic Sen. George McGovern in the 1972 election; and Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

The successes secured by the modern civil rights movement resulted in Blacks securing elected offices, attending white schools and purchasing homes in white neighborhoods, which comprised, in the minds of many whites, “racial threat conditions.”

Similar to the Trump effect now, those white communities experiencing the greatest number of racial threat conditions were where Wallace’s open racism and Nixon’s dog-whistle “law and order” rhetoric were most successful, Hackworth argues. And they were concentrated in the industrial Midwest, home to cities with growing Black populations like Detroit and Chicago — where conservatives could conjure themes of inner city decay, rampant criminology and urban pathology several decades before they would dominate coverage on Fox News and anchor Trump’s “Big Lie” of an election stolen by fraudulent inner-city voters.

Some of you may be old enough to remember the two or three years leading up to 1968, which were marked by racial disturbances across the country. Perhaps nowhere in the west suburbs were those disturbances more heated than in Maywood, where Blacks were moving next to whites at an increasing clip and voicing their growing frustration with racial prejudice.

Voting for Goldwater

The 1967 Kerner Commissioner report, for instance, identified two disturbances that occurred in Maywood the summer of that pivotal year, which don’t seem to have included major disturbances at Proviso East High School in October — the site of boycotts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and racial tensions that caused the school to close for at least three days. When the school reopened, students returned to police patrols.

There are signs that laissez-faire racism was taking hold in the Chicago area even before the 1968 election. Barry Goldwater — the Arizona senator who was ahead of his time in advocating for laissez-faire racism before people knew what to call it and whom Martin Luther King said “articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racists” — got substantially more votes than President Lyndon Johnson in both River Forest and Oak Park townships in the 1964 presidential election. In Proviso Township, Goldwater nearly tied Johnson. The president beat the senator by less than 2,000 votes in Proviso Township in a year that Johnson won in a national landslide.

In the 1968 election, Wallace got nearly 10% of the vote in Proviso Township while Nixon trounced Humphrey. Nixon also beat Humphrey handily in Oak Park and River Forest townships, even though Nixon only won by less than 1% nationally.

I’m not implying that everyone who voted Republican in the 1960s was racist, but we have to ask ourselves, as we face yet another period of white reaction after the election of a Black president, did racial sentiments play some factor in those elections and in what ways? 

In the 1960s, Oak Park residents were afraid the village would go the way of nearby Austin, a place where whites, in droves, were rushing to get away from their Black neighbors. Was Goldwater’s over-performance here in 1964 due, at least in part, to this racial dynamic? Was Nixon’s and Wallace’s over-performance here in 1968 due, at least in part, to the unruly Democratic Convention in August or the rumors reported by Claude Walker in the Forest Park Review in 1967 about “every negro student [at East having] a switchblade knife”?

 I agree with Hackworth that those electoral victories, in a period of extreme civil unrest and uncertainty, were won, in part, because conservatives were able to successfully pathologize and criminalize Blacks, particularly Black men. Hackworth calls this the conservative movement’s “strong bonding capital,” which unites whites and even some conservative non-whites across the political spectrum — left to right — which is why it’s so enduring.

This white fusion politics was a deliberate and concerted strategy on the part of Nixon’s campaign. Just listen to a Nixon political insider talk candidly to journalist Dan Baum in 1994 about the War on Drugs:

“You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana, the blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

They knew then and they know now.