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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Joseph Guay and Michéle Lamont

Is neoliberalism a threat to civil rights?

Yvetta Federova for the Boston Globe

This July marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The landmark law, spearheaded by President John F. Kennedy and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, opened the doors of liberty and equality for millions of Americans since then. But paying tribute to this momentous occasion also requires us to think hard on the racial discrimination and intense inequality that many Americans still face, both on paper and on the ground.

We live in time of intense partisan deadlock following one of the worst global financial crises since the Great Depression. Unfortunately these difficult times fall disproportionately hard on minorities and members of the working poor, just as members of the uber-affluent “1 percent” club are seeing enormous returns to capital and favorable tax breaks.

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These economic trends aren’t occurring in a vacuum — they’re political, and they’re part of a story that tells of the weakening of the very pillars of the Civil Rights Act: the voting booth, the workplace, and the classroom.

Indeed, recent years have seen the voice of the average American crowded out by the pockets of large corporations and by restrictive voter ID requirements, both of which have had adverse effects on the Democratic Party, traditionally representative of the lower class and minorities. And the House, in a symbolic move, recently passed another Paul Ryan budget, which calls for overwhelming cuts to Medicaid, welfare and food stamps programs, and funding for public education.

Surely we are far from the kinds of overt, traditional racism that — at least on paper — kept minorities from the voting booth, out of jobs, and under supported in the classroom. So how can today’s indirect discrimination be explained? The answer is not what you might think.

New research by Leanne S. Son Hing, a professor of psychology at the University of Guelph, suggests racism is in many cases associated with what seem to be highly sophisticated beliefs in neoliberal hallmarks like entrepreneurialism, individualism, self-reliance, and a strong work ethic.

Neoliberalism as economic policy endorses privatization, the liberalization of trade, and minimal state intervention in the market. Over the span of 30 years, these prescriptions have rewarded active participation, risk taking, and innovation, providing the fuel for unprecedented economic growth in the modern era.

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But as these policies influence our worldviews, market principles may serve to justify racial antipathy and cause us to turn a blind eye to structural restraints that often marginalize vulnerable minority communities, according to Son Hing. By employing neoliberal narratives premised on equal competition for prosperity, for instance, whites may reason that, “discrimination no longer exists,” that blacks’ “demands for special treatment are unfair,” and that blacks “fail to get ahead because of a lack of hard work and self-reliance.”

To make matters worse, as the current economic system exacerbates competition over scarce resources, heightens uncertainty about the future, and fosters greater inequality, neoliberals, who reject worldviews where things are not up to the individual, may become hostile to policies such as affirmative action or any other form of group remediation.

Son Hing is quick to point out that the picture is mixed — a “left-right political and economic orientation does not map perfectly onto prejudice. There are a number of aversive racists (characterized by unconsciously holding negative values) on the political left who are prejudiced and principled conservatives on the right who are not particularly prejudiced.”

Furthermore, some would argue that the sink-or-swim nature of our current economic system is what makes it work regardless of race, sex, creed, or any other social or physical determinant; reliance on strict market principles, in this view, is really the only way to ensure equity for all. By introducing some other, lower standard of judgment for those of different color/culture, we would be engaging in the very sort of racism that we want to eliminate.

Nevertheless, the research by Son Hing raises the possibility that in a neoliberal world, traditional variants of racism can more easily survive under the cover of evenhandedness. It is thus prudent that while we commemorate the legislation that has opened the door politically for millions of minorities here in the United States, we also contemplate the role that our economic beliefs can have in hampering that political progress in the days to come.

Joe Guay is communications specialist for the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and an adjunct lecturer at Northeastern University. Michéle Lamont, acting director of the Weatherhead Center, coedited the book, “Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era.”

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