America’s Social Contract Is Still Built on Racial Hostility (2022)

The killing of George Floyd presents Americans with an image that has become almost banal by its repeated rendering: yet another victim of a system of criminal justice tasked with protecting white Americans from their black fellow citizens.

Yet the nationwide outrage at another extrajudicial killing of a black man by a white cop has the feel of a historical moment. Maybe this is the moment when Americans recognize how deeply racism has scarred their country’s social contract. As former President Barack Obama said last week, maybe this prompts an “awakening.”

Maybe Americans can finally acknowledge that the lack of empathy that allows a white police officer to kill a black man with the bored, routine expression of a plumber fitting a pipe isn’t just an incident but what defines the United States today. Americans might finally understand how racial hostility has misshaped their priorities far beyond the issue of race itself and how foundational this hostility is to the social contract as it exists today. It is racial hostility—not some special love of laissez-faire capitalism—that allows Americans to applaud the creation of unprecedented wealth next to deprivation on a scale that would be the shame of any other advanced nation.

In an international ranking of poverty, the United States sits rock bottom among the industrialized countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), worse even than Mexico and Turkey. The United States also scores at or near the bottom in many of the ailments whose proximate cause is poverty. It suffers the highest rate of teen pregnancies in the developed world. Almost 1 out of every 4 children live with only one parent, the largest percentage by far among industrialized nations.

Except for Chile, Mexico, and Turkey, no other country in the OECD suffers more dead babies than the United States—most of them born to poor mothers who are often women of color. Whether it is the incidence of diabetes and obesity, the death rate from parasites and other infections, or years lost to premature death, today’s America is considerably less healthy than any other rich country.

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Why does the United States allow such deprivation to persist? It is a rich country—perhaps the richest in the history of the world. But why doesn’t it behave like one?

Americans like to blame these misfortunes on globalization and technological change ravaging working families. But globalization and technology struck everybody—the French and the Germans and the Canadians and the Japanese—yet American society buckled alone. The reason the United States is such an outlier is that it has showed no interest in building the safeguards erected by other advanced countries to protect those caught on the wrong side of the wrenching changes brought about by globalization and technology.

The white America that has held political power since the birth of the nation decided that if it had to share the social safety net with people on the other side of the racial and ethnic line, it would rather do without one. The eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson put it starkly in his book When Work Disappears: White taxpayers oppose welfare because they see themselves forced, through taxes, to pay for stuff for black people. America’s bloated prisons, idle men, single moms, and dead babies can be traced to this exceptional fact.

When the United States made its great liberal leap in the 1930s with the welfare policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, racism stymied it from the get-go.

On Roosevelt’s watch, workers gained the first national minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and the right to form unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. Older people got Social Security pensions. But many New Deal policies were either explicitly engineered to favor white people or favored them in practice. The Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934 to insure mortgage loans for Americans of limited means, refused to back loans in predominantly black neighborhoods, or for black people period, underwriting the segregation of urban America.

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The labor codes established by the National Recovery Administration beginning in 1933 allowed businesses to offer white people a first crack at jobs and authorized lower pay scales for black people. Social Security (created in 1935) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) at first excluded domestic and farm jobs, which employed 2 out of 3 black workers.

Three decades later, when the movement for civil rights finally opened the bounty of the New Deal to people of color, the political consensus that supported welfare policies in the United States collapsed. Medicare and Medicaid, the last government programs inspired by the New Deal ethos, were signed into law in 1965, one year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

That same year, Lyndon Johnson proposed to Americans a “war on crime,” which his successor, Richard Nixon, turned into his lodestar for social policy. Over the next half-century, the criminal justice system—not the welfare state—became the United States’ favored tool of social management.

The United States might not be able protect vulnerable citizens from the shocks delivered by an increasingly globalized world. But it could lock them up. Prison became “a last resort for a whole variety of social failures,” the sociologist Bruce Western said. “The criminal justice system,” Devah Pager told me in 2014, “became the only effective institution that could bring order and manage urban communities.”

The U.S. criminal justice system was targeted squarely at black people just as welfare policies had long been targeted at white people: Today, almost a million African Americans are behind bars. Though they account for some 13 percent of the population, black people make up 40 percent of the bloated count of men and women in prisons and other correctional facilities.

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The reason, of course, is that criminal justice was also a political tool: In the 1960s, Southern Democrats straining to recover the allegiance of white people lost with the passage of the Civil Rights Act took to “law and order” as a rallying cry. Republicans hoping to pry working-class white people from the Democrats’ grasp did too. “Crime” became the code word for racial unease.

“The crime debate was racialized to an important degree,” Western said. “The anxieties white voters felt were not just about crime but about fundamental social changes going on in American society.” Being tough on crime became the surefire tactic to woo white voters shocked by the sight of black people in public spaces that white people had long thought of as their own.

Government spending on the prison system jumped nearly fourfold between 1982 and 2015, after inflation, to $87 billion. That’s more than the government spent on food stamps that year and two and a half times what it spent on unemployment insurance. Even the nation’s premier anti-poverty benefit, the earned income tax credit, cost the government 25 percent less than its prisons.

There is something darkly ironic about America’s stilted social contract: The racial hostility that corralled people of color by limiting welfare policies ended up fencing in white Americans too.

The maternal mortality rate among black mothers is more than three times that of white mothers. Still, for every 100,000 births, nearly 13 white American women died of pregnancy-related issues in 2014. That’s more than four times the rate in the Netherlands, three times the rate in Germany, and almost six times the rate in Spain.

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White Americans have a greater life expectancy than African Americans. But the average white American baby born in 2018 will die at least two years sooner than newborn Germans, Danes, Greeks, and Portuguese; at least three years sooner than babies in South Korea, France, and Australia; and five years sooner than newborns in Japan.

There are nearly 20 million poor non-Hispanic white Americans, almost twice as many as poor black Americans. They are, as a group, the biggest beneficiaries of public spending on social programs. In 2014, tax credits and government assistance programs benefited 6.2 million white people without a college degree, compared with 2.8 million black Americans and 2.4 million Hispanics of similar educational backgrounds.

And of late, the criminal justice system has turned its eye on marginalized white people too. Less than 0.5 percent of white adults are in prison or jail, compared with nearly 2 percent of African Americans. Still, the share of white Americans in jail or prison is not only higher than the incarceration rate in other Western democracies such as France and Germany but also that of harsher regimes, such as those in China, Russia, and Iran.

Can the United States pull itself out of the social dystopia its racial hostilities have wrought? Might the outrage sweeping through the streets of urban America today provoke the kind of change that could build a more empathetic country?

I want to hope the United States is capable of building an inclusive social contract, one that can redefine the concept of mainstream American to include everyone. History, unfortunately, does not provide a happy precedent. Just as today, half a century ago riots fueled by racial anger convulsed urban America. In the first nine months of 1967, police confronted African Americans in cities across the country 164 times. In April 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., violent protests broke out again in dozens of American cities.

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Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, has researched the political impact of the protests that followed the assassination and concluded that the rioting pushed many white moderates who had supported the Democratic Party to vote for Nixon that November.

The war on crime ensued, perpetuating a toxic social contract with new instruments. With elections coming up in November, don’t be surprised if many white Americans vote for something similar once again.

This article has been adapted from Eduardo Porter’s new book, American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise.

FAQs

What is the social contract in America? ›

The term "social contract" refers to the idea that the state exists only to serve the will of the people, who are the source of all political power enjoyed by the state. The people can choose to give or withhold this power. The idea of the social contract is one of the foundations of the American political system.

What is racial hostility? ›

present research deals with the specific issue of racial hos- tility-here defined as a feeling of resentment or antagonism. directed toward another racial group'-from the black per- spective.

How is the social contract theory used today? ›

The U.S. Constitution is often cited as an explicit example of part of America's social contract. It sets out what the government can and cannot do. People who choose to live in America agree to be governed by the moral and political obligations outlined in the Constitution's social contract.

What is the concept of a social contract? ›

Social contract theory, nearly as old as philosophy itself, is the view that persons' moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live.

Does the social contract still exist? ›

A social contract is a real or hypothetical agreement between a government and its people setting out the rights and duties of each. The social contracts on which society is currently based largely emerged in the post-war era, and are no longer fit for purpose.

Does the US government have a social contract? ›

The Constitution of the United States outlines a social contract among the American people dating back to 1787. Its origins meet the criteria set out by Locke for the just creation of a government, and the document itself is structured to protect the natural rights of its inhabitants.

How does racial discrimination affect education? ›

Experiencing discrimination can provoke stress responses similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. Children who experience discrimination from their teachers are more likely to have negative attitudes about school and lower academic motivation and performance, and are at increased risk of dropping out of high school.

What is the difference between benevolent prejudice and hostile prejudice? ›

Benevolent prejudice is a superficially positive prejudice that is expressed in terms of positive beliefs and emotional responses, which are associated with hostile prejudices or result in keeping affected groups in inferior positions in society.

What is wrong with social contract theory? ›

Problems with the social contract theory include the following: It gives government too much power to make laws under the guise of protecting the public. Specifically, governments may use the cloak of the social contract to invoke the fear of a state of nature to warrant laws that are intrusive.

What are some examples of social contract? ›

The social contract is the unspoken agreement between individuals to give up certain natural rights in order to enjoy the benefits of society. For instance, humans give up the natural right to yell as loud as they want whenever they want in return for the comforts of a respectful, ordered society.

What is an example of the social contract theory in practice? ›

As an example of social contract theory in practice, consider if William accuses Adam of stealing $1,000 from him. Adam denies having done it. In a natural law state, the men might settle the matter by fighting – or perhaps William would break into Adam's home and attempt to take the money back.

What is the most common objection to social contract theory? ›

Problems with the social contract theory include the following: It gives government too much power to make laws under the guise of protecting the public. Specifically, governments may use the cloak of the social contract to invoke the fear of a state of nature to warrant laws that are intrusive.

What is the purpose of a social contract? ›

The purpose of the social contract is serving the common or greater good to ensure the sustainability of the system in question and protect the individuals within it. As such, the social contract generally guides moral behavior.

What would happen if there was no social contract? ›

We would have no society since social interaction requires trust and cooperation, which we would not be capable of. In essence, our human lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

What is John Locke's social contract theory? ›

In simple terms, Locke's social contract theory says: government was created through the consent of the people to be ruled by the majority, “(unless they explicitly agree on some number greater than the majority),” and that every man once they are of age has the right to either continue under the government they were ...

What is a social contract in government? ›

social contract, in political philosophy, an actual or hypothetical compact, or agreement, between the ruled or between the ruled and their rulers, defining the rights and duties of each.

What can citizens do if the government violates the rights of the citizens in a social contract? ›

According to other social contract theorists, when the government fails to secure their natural rights (Locke) or satisfy the best interests of society (called the "general will" by Rousseau), citizens can withdraw their obligation to obey or change the leadership through elections or other means including, when ...

How does discrimination affect society? ›

Discrimination affects people's opportunities, their well-being, and their sense of agency. Persistent exposure to discrimination can lead individuals to internalize the prejudice or stigma that is directed against them, manifesting in shame, low self-esteem, fear and stress, as well as poor health.

Does race play a role in education? ›

A 2018 study found that students who have had at least one same-race teacher over their academic career were 13% more likely to graduate.

When was segregation made illegal in the US? ›

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which legally ended the segregation that had been institutionalized by Jim Crow laws. And in 1965, the Voting Rights Act halted efforts to keep minorities from voting.

Can prejudice ever be a good thing? ›

We often think of bias and prejudice as rooted in ignorance. But as psychologist Paul Bloom seeks to show, prejudice is often natural, rational ... even moral. The key, says Bloom, is to understand how our own biases work -- so we can take control when they go wrong.

Which of the following is an example of hostile sexism? ›

Hostile sexism refers to negative views toward individuals who violate traditional gender roles. For example, some people disparage girls who enter traditionally masculine domains such as science or sports.

What is a good example of prejudice? ›

An example of prejudice is having a negative attitude toward people who are not born in the United States. Although people holding this prejudiced attitude do not know all people who were not born in the United States, they dislike them due to their status as foreigners.

Who invented social contract theory? ›

The idea of the social contract goes back at least to Protagoras and Epicurus. In its recognizably modern form, however, the idea is revived by Thomas Hobbes and was later developed, in different ways, by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant.

Who is not associated with social contract theory? ›

Q.Which one of the following is not associated with Social contract theory ?
B.locke
C.herbert spencer
D.rousseau
Answer» c. herbert spencer
1 more row

How does social contract theory justify civil disobedience? ›

For when the disadvantaged are denied the benefits of social living, they are released from the contract that would otherwise require them to follow society's rules. This is the deepest argument for civil disobedience, and the Social Contract Theory presents it clearly and forcefully.

What is another word for social contract? ›

What is another word for social contract?
code of conductrule of law
societal agreementsocietal rules

What is an example of social contract and individual rights? ›

Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights

This stage acknowledges the introduction of abstract reasoning as people attempt to explain specific behaviors. In our example above, the man should steal the medication for his wife because she is deathly ill and the laws do not take the circumstances into account.

What is wrong with Thomas Hobbes theory? ›

But moral and political philosophy work differently to political science. Hobbes is wrong to claim that because we create commonwealths, we can deduce the empirical consequences of different kinds of commonwealths. Hobbes misstates the place of empiricism in politics.

Which of the following issues are identified in the social contract? ›

Which of the following issues are identified in the social contract? civil government by common consent. the way government should be structured. life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Which of the following best describes social contract theory? ›

Which of the following describes the Social Contract Theory as advanced by John Locke? It is an agreement in which the government promises to protect the natural rights of the people.

Why contract is necessary in human society? ›

They serve as a record of commitments for both parties.

First, two parties agree to work together, and forge a connection that if fostered well and beneficial on both sides, can last years. A contract is the visual representation of that relationship. Contracts also hold each party to their original agreement.

What is an example of a social contract today? ›

As members of the moral club we might agree to some set of rules that addresses the issue of animals. For example, we can agree that if I own a dog, you cannot harm my dog any more than you can damage my car. Both my dog and my car are my property and my property is protected under the social contract.

What's an example of social contract? ›

The social contract is the unspoken agreement between individuals to give up certain natural rights in order to enjoy the benefits of society. For instance, humans give up the natural right to yell as loud as they want whenever they want in return for the comforts of a respectful, ordered society.

How did the social contract influence American government? ›

The social contract states that “rational people” should believe in organized government, and this ideology highly influenced the writers of the Declaration of Independence. that created it, or popular sovereignty. He believed that every citizen was equal in the view of the government.

What is the purpose of a social contract? ›

The purpose of the social contract is serving the common or greater good to ensure the sustainability of the system in question and protect the individuals within it. As such, the social contract generally guides moral behavior.

Why is social contract theory wrong? ›

Problems with the social contract theory include the following: It gives government too much power to make laws under the guise of protecting the public. Specifically, governments may use the cloak of the social contract to invoke the fear of a state of nature to warrant laws that are intrusive.

What is another word for social contract? ›

What is another word for social contract?
code of conductrule of law
societal agreementsocietal rules

What is the most common objection to social contract theory? ›

Problems with the social contract theory include the following: It gives government too much power to make laws under the guise of protecting the public. Specifically, governments may use the cloak of the social contract to invoke the fear of a state of nature to warrant laws that are intrusive.

Who created the social contract theory? ›

The idea of the social contract goes back at least to Protagoras and Epicurus. In its recognizably modern form, however, the idea is revived by Thomas Hobbes and was later developed, in different ways, by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant.

What is an example of social contract and individual rights? ›

Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights

This stage acknowledges the introduction of abstract reasoning as people attempt to explain specific behaviors. In our example above, the man should steal the medication for his wife because she is deathly ill and the laws do not take the circumstances into account.

What influenced the social contract? ›

The influence of theories of the social contract, especially as they relate to the issues of natural rights and the proper functions of government, pervades the constitution making of the revolutionary era that began with the American Revolution and is indeed enshrined in the great political manifestos of the time, the ...

How relevant is the social contract theory to modern politics? ›

Social contract has enhanced formation of political parties, democracy, obedience of the law, proper governance and even law formation (Rousseau 1987, p. 26). Social contract has also impacted political theories as they were framed based on social contract theories.

Videos

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3. Conversation with Faith Leaders
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4. Exclusions in the Social Contract: Eduardo Porter (FULL PODCAST EPISODE)
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5. Charles Mills Refines Trevor Noah's Powerful Thoughts About George Floyd's Murder
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6. America’s Racial Reckoning: Black Lives and Black Futures in Historical, Political and Legal Context
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