Solidarity or Allyship? Racial Justice and White Liberals Under Neoliberal Capitalism

Jared Clemons, Duke University

Why does racial inequality persist despite the dismantling of nearly all legal and political barriers to social incorporation faced by Black Americans? Further, why is it that white liberals—Black people's chief allies in the fight for racial equality—often retreat from efforts to address structural racial injustices? To answer these questions, I build upon the insights of Martin Luther King, Jr., who, up until his death, remained convinced that racial equality required a robust social democratic state and the cultivation of collectivist, rather than individualistic modes of thought within the polity—all of which he believed could be achieved through interracial organizing. These declarations, however, were dismissed by federal leaders as they—in response to the inflation "crisis" of the late 1960s/early 1970s—gravitated towards a neoliberal political program that rejected New Deal and Great Society-era logic in favor of an ideological framework that emphasized the importance of personal responsibility and the development of human capital. This maneuver transitioned questions of social justice—and, as a corollary, racial justice—from the state to the private family. As a result, antiracist politics have taken the form of people asking well-to-do families, particularly white families, to sacrifice their "privilege" on behalf of racial justice, rather than demanding that the state do more to combat structural inequalities—a phenomenon I refer to as the privatization of racial responsibility. Within this framework, racial justice and human capital are often in conflict, with human capital taking precedent. Critically, I argue that the neoliberal turn rejected social democracy, expanded individualistic ideology to previously untapped domains, and disrupted interracial coalition-building—all of which were necessary components of the Black Freedom Struggle, according to King—while exculpating the state for its failure to address structural injustices; thus, allowing racial inequality to endure.

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 Presented in Session 39. U.S. Empire Reconsidered