Is Racism Fueling the Push for Public-Sector Job Cuts?

racism discrimination wordleWe’ve mentioned before the cuts in public-sector jobs are hurting the nation’s recovery from the Great Recession. An analyst for the Economic Policy Institute, quoted in this Pacific Standard article, found that given public-sector employment before the recession and population growth, we should have a million more people working for state and local governments than we do today.

This jobs deficit is in large part the reason why unemployment rates are so high for African Americans today. The public sector has had a much stronger commitment to diversity than the private sector, and as a result African Americans were “30 percent more likely to be public employees than were members of any other race” in 2014.

That leads the Pacific Standard to the question, does racism play a role in the current conservative rhetoric attacking public-sector workers?

In the past, racialized arguments against government spending were often focused on welfare and poverty programs. But recently, similar rhetoric about lazy, government-supported do-nothings has been deployed against public sector workers, especially in the context of public sector unions. Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, for example, has called public sector workers “free loaders” and compared them to “those on public assistance.” In Wisconsin, where the battle over public sector unions has been fiercest, Katherine Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, conducted interviews in which she found that “[p]ublic employees were often denounced as lazy people who sit behind their desks all day and never get their hands dirty.” At the New RepublicJonathan Cohn argued that these stereotypes of public employees echoed stereotypes of welfare queens. …

Government programs in the U.S. have historically been viewed as illegitimate because they help black people. The assault on public sector employees seems to build on that history of racism, causing African-American workers to suffer disproportionately during this recovery.

Understanding the extent to which attacks on the public sector have underlying motivations related to race and racism will probably never be fully accomplished. That said, however, it does underscore the importance of our challenge in promoting the value of public structures AND the people who make them work. We must consistently articulate the universal values that are realized because of the public sector (quality of life, opportunity, etc. , offer widely recognized examples and images of that work, and help Americans to see that they have a role play in the civic life of their communities. The Center for Social Inclusion is also a resource in how to break racial frames and is leading the way in showing how we effectively can use racially explicit language and images in support of government and public policy.

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