[OPE-L] American state racism

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Sun Apr 29 2007 - 21:43:27 EDT

My dissertation expressed some skepticism of this thesis, as summarized in
the New York times article below. Inequalities are rising even in places
once considered to be ethnically homogenous or places where ethnic
differences have been considered soft. Economic polarization tends to
engender racialization more than it is engendered by it, and the limits of
the state in attentuating it needs to be addressed.

But this is a country shot through with a seething often unspoken culture
of racism, a hard heredetarian ideology of group inequality. Though
unacceptable in the American academy its policy implications are often
realized and its hold on the American imagination is tight.

I wish I had read Mark Nathan Cohen's Culture of Intolerance before
writing my dissertation. It's a popular book in all the best senses of the

April 29, 2007
Economic View
The Divisions That Tighten the Purse Strings

MANY Americans are skeptical about government spending on social programs,
and they cite a litany of familiar reasons: big government programs aren’t
effective, they are vulnerable to waste and abuse, and they run counter to
the libertarian, self-reliant spirit of the nation’s founders.

But a growing body of research suggests that America’s antipathy toward
big government has another, less-often-acknowledged underpinning: the
nation’s racial and ethnic diversity.

Recent studies by economists and other social scientists have found that
this mix tends to undermine support for government spending on “public
goods” of all types, whether health care, roads or welfare programs for
the disadvantaged.

Some of these studies suggest that America’s rich diversity — not only
ethnic and racial but also religious and linguistic — goes a long way
toward explaining why government spending on social welfare programs is
much lower than it is in the more homogeneous nations of Europe. Other
studies have found that within the United States, local support for
various types of public spending falls as diversity rises.

“Racial divisions and ethnic divisions reduce incentives for people to be
generous to others through social welfare,” said Alberto Alesina, a
professor of economics at Harvard. “This is very unfortunate. But as
social scientists, we can’t close our eyes to something we don’t like.”

In America, government spending on social transfers — everything from food
stamps and unemployment insurance to health care and pensions — is about a
third less than it is in Italy, France or Belgium, when expressed as a
share of the economy, according to data from the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development. And it is about half the level of Sweden’s.
Moreover, Americans pay less in taxes than the citizens of nearly every
other wealthy nation in the O.E.C.D.

In their 2004 book, “Fighting Poverty in the U.S. and Europe,” Mr. Alesina
and Edward Glaeser, another Harvard economist, applied statistical
regression techniques to correlate data on government spending with data
on racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity in Western Europe
and the United States. The professors concluded that about half the gap
between Europe and the United States in public spending on social programs
could be explained by America’s more varied racial and ethnic mix. (They
said that much of the rest resulted from stronger left-wing parties in

As William Julius Wilson suggested in his 1996 book, “When Work
Disappears: the World of the New Urban Poor,” many white Americans turned
against spending on welfare during the 1970s because they thought that it
mostly served blacks. “White taxpayers saw themselves as being forced,
through taxes, to pay for medical and legal services that many of them
could not afford for their own families,” Mr. Wilson wrote.

In the relative homogeneity of Sweden, by contrast, most taxpayers are
confident that social spending programs will be directed to people much
like themselves.

This doesn’t mean Americans are stingy. In fact, they contribute much more
than Europeans to charity, selecting who they want to help. “It’s not that
Americans are bad guys,” Mr. Glaeser said. “They just want to target it.”

But in drawing on a wide range of data like population surveys and
patterns of municipal spending, researchers have found ample evidence of
how ethnic and racial diversity has undermined support for spending on
social welfare in the United States.

In a study in 2001, Erzo F. P. Luttmer, an associate professor at the
Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, reported that the percentage of
people who say they support welfare spending decreases as the share of
local recipients from their own racial group falls. His report was based
on data from the General Social Survey, a social-attitudes poll conducted
across the United States nearly every year since 1972.

In another study, published in 1996, James Poterba, a professor of
economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that public
spending on education falls as the percentage of elderly people in a given
area rises. The reduction, he found, “is particularly large when the
elderly residents and the school-age population are from different racial

In a 1997 study, Mr. Alesina, along with Reza Baqir, an economist at the
International Monetary Fund, and William Easterly, an economics professor
at New York University, looked at the relationship between social spending
and ethnic diversity in 2,700 cities, counties and metropolitan areas
across the United States.

They found that in more diverse cities and counties, the share of local
government spending on public goods — in this case, roads, sewage
treatment, trash clearance and education — was generally lower than it was
in more homogeneous localities. “Our results are consistent with the idea
that white majorities vote to reduce the supply of productive public goods
as the share of blacks and other minorities increases,” they wrote.

Of course, there are some exceptions to the pattern. New York and
California, for instance, are among the most highly taxed and most diverse
states, although there is evidence that racial and ethnic tensions have
whittled away at support for public spending. In California, to cite just
one example, Proposition 187, barring illegal immigrants from access to
public services, passed in 1994 on the support of 63 percent of whites,
despite the opposition of four of every five Latinos.

New York’s history also has examples of ethnic tensions. But New York
City, in a way, is a special case: so diverse that no single ethnic or
racial majority controls the public purse. “There is no cleavage between
an Anglo majority and some poor minority,” Mr. Glaeser said. “In New York,
everybody is a minority.”

New York City’s experience, in fact, underscores that diversity does not
automatically lead to hostility among ethnic groups or toward government
spending as a whole. From public education to intermarriage to the many
institutions in civil society promoting mutual understanding, there are
countervailing forces acting to overcome ethnic, religious or linguistic

Ethnic diversity doesn’t inevitably reduce spending on public goods.
Rather, spending tends to fall when elected officials choose to run and
govern on platforms that heighten racial and ethnic divisions. Over the
long term, governments usually find it in their interest to bridge the
centrifugal forces of diversity rather than to exploit them, if only to
promote stability.

STILL, there is little reason to believe that the racial, ethnic,
religious and linguistic antagonisms that have eroded support for social
welfare programs in the United States are likely to abate any time soon.
Indeed, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants a year
from Latin America seems to be sapping support for public welfare.

Last year, laws were enacted in Arizona, Colorado, Rhode Island and Hawaii
barring illegal immigrants from access to some government programs. This
month, the State Senate in Oklahoma overwhelmingly passed legislation that
would bar illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits.

And these restrictive attitudes can easily turn against spending on
domestic programs as a whole. Representative Tom Tancredo, a Colorado
Republican running for president on an anti-immigration platform, says
that Americans pay too much in taxes and that the Internal Revenue Service
should be abolished. His candidacy may not prosper, but the issues on
which he is running are likely to be around for some time.

Mr. Alesina certainly expects further conflicts. “One can expect public
support for public goods to erode further,” he said. “Public spending in
law and order might not go down. What would go down is spending on

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