The recent Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission, which essentially forbids any restrictions on corporate financing of political candidates, has garnered much media attention this past week. Ostensibly, the ruling extends ridiculous precedents granting corporations status as persons and endowing them with accordant rights. Liberal commentators and politicians have rightly expressed outrage at the serious threat Citizens United poses to the last vestiges of American democracy. Most of the outrage has been on one or more of several grounds: Marxist/class-based, partisan, and/or politico-structural (i.e. how laws and the structure of federal and state governments will change as a consequence of corporate influence). Too little analysis has focused explicitly on the racial causes and implications of the ruling.
I believe the timing of this ruling is an intentional effort by white [male] elites to restore whites’ structural political advantages. For whites, Obama’s election and Latinos’ increased voting power threaten whites’ historical dominance. The ruling is designed to immediately weaken the currently ascendant political coalition of people of color and liberal whites. It is also sets the social, political, and economic conditions for whites to continue racial domination after they cease to be the numerical and electoral majority in the United States.
MSNBC noted the irony of the Supreme Courts’ ruling, which greatly empowers banks and other large financial institutions, coming down within hours of President Obama announcing proposals to reestablish limits on the nation’s largest banks. On its face, the timing of events appears to be either oddly coincidental or, more likely, the first shots in a war between two ruling sectors in the United States—the state and the capital class. But from a critical racial perspective, the Supreme Court ruling smacks of racism. Over the past three years, much was made about Obama’s ability to raise money through non-corporate vehicles. To be sure, he received much corporate support, but the rhetoric surrounding his campaign was a populist one, and the campaign greatly benefitted from “small” contributions from “regular people.” For the first time in many cycles, the Democratic candidate had a significant financial advantage over his Republican rivals. Obama effectively used that financial advantage to exhaust the resources of the McCain campaign. The Democrats held vulnerable territories without much challenge (e.g. Michigan) and won Republican-trending states (e.g. North Carolina and Virginia) via sustained (and expensive) media and grassroots efforts. This change in presidential campaign norms was all the more stunning given that it was done by the first Black candidate to lead the ticket of a major party.
Sociological research indicates that dominant groups (e.g. white policy-makers and Supreme Court justices) respond to threats (i.e. a Black man becoming chief executive) by using state institutions to weaken the threat and strengthen the dominant group. (See the introduction to the second edition of McAdam’s Political Process and the Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, for one of many examples.) The research seems to be especially applicable in this case. If Obama’s political strength comes, at least in part, from his advantage in non-corporate funding, allowing corporations to spend infinite dollars in support of oppositional candidates diffuses Obama as a political threat and greatly strengthens his opposition.
The racial elements are clear. Most obviously, as the first Black president, Obama represents a racialized threat to white power generally. (See Harvey-Winfield and Feagin 2009 for whites’ fears that Obama would serve Blacks’ economic and political interests.) Secondly, the Republican Party, which is the only electorally significant opposition to Obama and the Democrats, is increasingly a white, male party. Empowering corporations to financially prop up the shrinking party of, for, and by white men is an attempt to counter emerging electoral trends (e.g. the majority of each minority group voting for Obama and Democrats; the shrinking percentage of the voting population that is white and male) and promote white privilege. As the only branch of the federal government currently under direct control of white men, the Supreme Court is the best, if not only, tool available to immediately effect whites’ racial politics. That Republicans and big business have long been bed fellows only makes the Supreme Court’s strategy of “freeing” corporate funds a more certain path for achieving white elites’ racist goals. The potential of a split in the capitalist class (i.e. capitalists funding both parties equally) is precluded by the strong overlaps between whiteness, corporate leadership, and the Republican Party.
In short, the timing of the ruling seems to be obviously racially motivated. Democrats have ruled before, but the combination of Black and Brown leadership, increased Black and Brown voting activity, decreased white voting potential, and sufficient non-corporate funding pools for campaigns was a new threat to which whites were compelled to respond immediately. Whites’ desperation and determination to act now are revealed in their naked over-reaching in the case at hand. Section I of the official “syllabus” (i.e. summary of the case, written by the Reporter of Decisions) of United Citizens details the convoluted logic the Court used to justify both acting immediately and overreaching. The Court is explicit in arguing that they wanted to remove the restrictions on corporate funding before upcoming elections and that they wanted to ensure national impact. In the Syllabus, the Court’s political agenda is in the guise of protection of the First Amendment, but I have articulated reasons to believe the agenda is largely racial.
In my view, the Court’s ruling sets the stage for whites to continue their racist dominance after they lose majority status. Whites’ unjust enrichment (Feagin 2000) gives them a host of weapons with which to oppress people of color. Among the most potent of those weapons is liquid cash. Since Watergate, campaign laws have restricted corporate funding of candidates. Consequently, one of whites’ primary weapons was limited. The limitation was not crucial at the moment because 90 percent of the electorate was white (as of 1980). Therefore, whites’ control of government was unthreatened. However, the decrease in whites’ percentage of the electorate (now under 70%) places their continued electoral dominance in question.
The writing is on the wall for whites’ numerical majority. By and large, most Americans assume a one-to-one relationship between racial demographics and politico-economic dominance. I am constantly impressed by the consistency of undergraduates’ responses to demographic data. Often Latinos are encouraged and empowered by the data. In each of my research projects interviewing Latino students, almost all view their racial/ethnic group as the future dominant group in the U.S. In their version of the cohort effect, racism will “die out” as Latinos replace whites at the heads of major political and economic institutions. Whites usually respond with similar assumptions that their racial and social dominance depends entirely on their numbers. As their relative population falls, so too will their power (and vulnerability to charges of racism). Scholars vary on their takes, but some have adopted a tripartite model in which whites will continue to dominate by extending whiteness to include more groups and bestowing “honorary whiteness” on other groups. These two groups would then derive privileges by oppressing “collective Blacks” (e.g. African-descended peoples, Native Americans, and Southeast Asians).
I respond to all of these assumptions with my own prediction that whites’ primary strategy will be oligarchic in nature. Whites’ dominance of political, social, and economic institutions will far outlast their numerical majority. Whites will use their current majority to construct institutions in a way that ensures they can keep control even without majority status. From these powerful social locations, whites can continue to generate and reproduce a racial structure very similar to the contemporary one. White school boards and a disproportionately white academy will still control the content of education; white executives will still use formal and informal methods to reproduce economic inequality; whites will still have vested interests in segregated neighborhoods; whites will still use wars and other coercive tactics to exploit people of color’s land and labor. Just as the 13th amendment did not end slavery in practice, whites’ fall to plurality status will not change the racial status quo. Demographic majority status is not the basis of racial domination. Access to institutional power, material resources, and control of discourse are. Unleashing white executives to spend corporate dollars as they choose only serves to cement white people and white ideology at the levers of power in America.
So then, the Supreme Court’s decision has clear structural impacts that promote white supremacy for the foreseeable future. White executives will use corporate dollars to put in place laws, ideologies, and individuals to sustain the white supremacist status quo. These structural moves, however, will still take place in public arenas (e.g. elections, mass media). Consequently, whites will need justifications for taking their actions. They will have to convince the public to vote for their candidates and accept occasional visible legal changes. With these goals, white corporate executives will buy lots of ads and command much attention. What worries me is the probable content of those ads. American history teaches us that whites often use African Americans and other people of color as threats and scapegoats to justify oppression. Recently, the “welfare queen,” “crack baby,” and “Latin drug lord” were powerful images in the 1980s and 1990s that whites used to dismantle the social safety net for everyone. Whites have used images of hypersexual people of color (of all stripes) to justify everything from segregating “dangerous” Asian “sexual predators” to castrating and sterilizing Black men and women involuntarily (see Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body). Each of these projects, and innumerable others, served white elites’ corporate interests and were popularized via corporate actions and financial contributions. Whites are not finished with this type of business. Corporations will undoubtedly turn up the heat again and aggressively use racist imagery to motivate [white] masses to support corporate ends.
As people interested in racial justice, we must quickly consider how we can act now to address the serious racial threats white elites launched via the Supreme Court. Despite the electoral successes of 2008 and people of color’s growing electoral strength, we may currently be at the peak of our power to resist. With each passing day, whites are plotting ways to mobilize and use their considerable economic resources to reshape the government, influence our views, and frustrate all organized resistance efforts. Very soon, they will begin implementing those plans in earnest. Then we will have a very tough fight on our hands, indeed!