Donald Trump’s administration recently decided to give $12 billion to farmers hurt by the president’s trade war against the European Union, China and various other countries. These monies can be considered a form of welfare for white people in red state America who are among his most loyal supporters. Moreover, the racial disparity is made even clearer by the way that African-American and other nonwhite farmers have been victims of systemic discrimination by the United States Department of Agriculture. In 2010, the USDA and the Justice Department reached a $1.25 billion settlement with black farmers over a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in USDA farm loan programs.
Welfare for white Americans is nothing new. In many ways, the United States was built on white welfare.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, free land was given to European settlers as the intended result of genocide and ethnic cleansing against Native Americans. As part of this same racist project, the stolen labor and lives of black human property is estimated to have been worth trillions of dollars. In essence, black pain and black suffering was a de facto intergenerational welfare payment to White America, one that fueled the country’s rise to global power and created income and other life opportunities for white people, both native- born and immigrants.
African-Americans and other nonwhites were prohibited both by law and social convention from taking advantage of land grants and other opportunities made available by the Homestead Act and related 19th-century legislation, which were conservatively worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
The American middle class (predominantly white by definition) was created after World War II by way of federal programs like the VA, the FHA home programs and the G.I. Bill. This example of white welfare was one of the largest wealth-creation and intergenerational wealth-transfer programs in history. Again, African-Americans and other nonwhites were, for the most part, denied access to those opportunities. Today’s extreme racial wealth gap is the most obvious result.
What economists and other social scientists describe as “the submerged state” — government programs such as mortgage interest deductions, capital gains and other tax credits and cuts, and financial subsidies for entire industries — is another example of white welfare. Whites are disproportionately overrepresented as beneficiaries of the submerged state. Moreover, the submerged state is a central means through which the racial wealth gap is maintained in so-called “post racial” “colorblind” America.
There is a complication. New research by Robb Willer, professor of sociology at Stanford University, and Rachel Wetts, a researcher at the University of California, demonstrates that despite all the ways that government provided welfare programs to help them, white Americans are willing to cut such programs if they believe that African-Americans and other nonwhites may benefit.
This dynamic is made worse when white Americans are made to feel that their place at the top of America’s social hierarchy is challenged. Lyndon Johnson’s insight has been proven true over and over: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”