On Money, Power, and How John Roberts Forged One More Link In The History Of White Supremacy In America

As Betty and Ranchandsyrup kindly noted yesterday I have a post up over at the Atlantic’s joint. (Originally on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog, the editors there moved it over to Politics after a bit.)  It’s attracted a fair amount of comment over there, including severe disdain from some folks that I infer are somewhat more right of center than your humble blogger.

In it I argue that the McCutcheon decision eliminating some campaign finance limits shows how White supremacy operates in a post slavery-post-Jim Crow-post-Civil-Rights-era environment:  not by targeting race explicitly, but by constraining the paths on which African Americans could engage and acquire power.


Here’s a taste:

A drastically shortened version of Coates’s analysis is that white supremacy—and the imposition of white power on African-American bodies and property—have been utterly interwoven through the history of American democracy, wealth and power from the beginnings of European settlement in North America. The role of the exploitation of African-American lives in the construction of American society and polity did not end in 1865. Rather, through the levers of law, lawless violence, and violence under the color of law, black American aspirations to wealth, access to capital, access to political power, a share in the advances of the social safety net and more have all been denied with greater or less efficiency. There has been change—as Coates noted in a conversation he and I had a couple of years ago, in 1860 white Americans could sell children away from their parents, and in 1865 they could not—and that is a real shift. But such beginnings did not mean that justice was being done nor equity experienced.

Once you start seeing American history through the corrective lens created by the generations of scholars and researchers on whose work Coates reports, then it becomes possible—necessary, really—to read current events in a new light. Take, for example, the McCutcheon decision that continued the Roberts Court program of gutting campaign-finance laws.

The conventional—and correct, as far as it goes—view of the outcome, enabling wealthy donors to contribute to as many candidates as they choose, is that this further tilts the political playing field towards the richest among us at the expense of every American voter. See noted analyst Jon Stewart for a succinct presentation of this view.

I then go on to cite a study that analyzed just who belongs to the exclusive club directly affected by McCutcheon — the about 1,200 people who brushed up against the limits in dispute.  After going through the predictable demographics — the group is overwhelmingly white and mostly male, I added this:

People of color are almost entirely absent from the top donor profile, and none more so than members of the community that white Americans enslaved for two centuries:

While more than one-in-six Americans live in a neighborhood that is majority African-American or Hispanic, less than one-in-50 superlimit donors do. More than 90 percent of these elite donors live in neighborhoods with a greater concentration of non- Hispanic white residents than average. African-Americans are especially underrepresented. The median elite donor lives in a neighborhood where the African-American population counts for only 1.4 percent, nine times less than the national rate.

…This is why money isn’t speech. Freedom of speech as a functional element in democratic life assumes that such freedom can be meaningfully deployed. But the unleashing of yet more money into politics allows a very limited class of people to drown out the money “speech” of everyone else—but especially those with a deep, overwhelmingly well documented history of being denied voice and presence in American political life.

That seems to me to be pretty obvious — but what really got me going, and what seems to me the crux of the matter, is that McCutcheon isn’t a stand-alone judgment:

combine…decisions [on campaign finance] with the conclusions of the court on voting rights, and you get a clear view of what the five-justice right-wing majority has done. Controlling access to the ballot has been a classic tool of white supremacy since the end of Reconstruction. It is so once again, as states seizing on the Roberts Court’s Voting Rights Act decision take aim at exactly those tools with which African Americans increased turnout and the proportion of minority voters within the electorate. There’s not even much of an attempt to disguise what’s going on.

Add all this to the Roberts decision to free states from the tyranny of being forced to accept federal funds to provide healthcare to the poor. When John Roberts declared that Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion would be optional, the decision sounded colorblind—states could deny succor to their poor of any race— [but] in practice, that is to say in the real world, this decision hits individual African Americans and their communities the hardest, as Coates wrote way back when.

I’d add to that the last step in the syllogism: make money the measure of political speech and inhibit the ability of one group to accumulate not just wages but capital…and that’s a denial of the rights of citizenship just as much as any direct attack on access to the voting booth.

White supremacy as a social reality isn’t (any more) a matter of folks in white hoods or politicians standing around with axe-handles at the ready.  It comes cloaked in elaborately distanced language, through actions that appear on the surface to be aloof from any consideration of race.  Surely campaign finance law would seem to have no connection to civil rights jurisprudence.  Perhaps as a matter of abstract argument, of judicial logic-chopping (and very selective historical memory) it doesn’t.  In the real world, it does.

I’m not arguing that Roberts and his four co-conspirators are racists. I don’t know or care what they feel or how they perceive themselves. The matter is rather, do the actions of the Roberts Court support an ongoing use of power that has a racist outcome?  That question, I think, answers itself.

A nation that can elect Barack Obama is not John Calhoun’s America; it isn’t even Strom Thurmond’s.  It’s ours, and for all the changes I’ve seen in 55 years lived between our two shining seas, it’s one that continues to tell the old story of white-erected obstacles to African Americans seeking to exercise political power.  Again, you can check out the full piece over there.

Image: Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of the Marquesa Elena Grimaldic. 1623.

66 replies
  1. 1
    Pogonip says:

    What does C.R.E.A.M. stand for?

  2. 2
    the Conster says:


    Cash Rules Everything Around Me

  3. 3
    Cacti says:

    John Roberts is the Melville Fuller of the 21st century.

  4. 4
    aimai says:

    Very nice,Tom. Very, very, nice.

  5. 5
    Elizabelle says:

    We need to make the Democrats’ 4-year voters into 2-year voters as well.

    Maybe the craziness and ugliness and desperate tactics emanating from the GOP will get those who would vote Democratic to the polls this fall? (And yeah, it will take a lot of organizing and canvassing too.)

  6. 6
    RedKitten says:

    Ugh. I’ve just spent the last 1/2 hour on Twitter trying to explain to a libertarian that no, the #creepywhiteguy hashtag is not actually racist, and that racism is systemic and has the weight of the existing power structure thrown behind it, etc. etc. Like talking to a fucking WALL, it was.

    Where is my gin?

  7. 7
    Lurking Buffoon says:

    Is it safe to assume the disdain went along the lines of “Nuh uh! Democrats are the real racists, cuz they talk about certain races being disproportionately impacted consistently by economic policy and political access!”?

  8. 8
    Wag says:

    One of the comments on your piece yesterday was excellent. They looked at all 400 people on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans, and the only African American was Oprah. The rest? White dues, by and large.

    Ain’t racial equality great?

  9. 9
    Bobby Thomson says:

    I’m not arguing that Roberts and his four co-conspirators are racists. I don’t know or care what they feel or how they perceive themselves.

    How they feel about themselves subjectively has nothing to do with whether they are racists. They are, and should be shunned by polite society.

  10. 10
    Lee says:

    I had no idea of the author when I first read this piece awhile back.

    After reading it then (and again today), I’m not sure I agree with it yet but it is certainly thought provoking.

    Thank you!

  11. 11
    rikyrah says:

    good article. thanks.

  12. 12
    the Conster says:

    Josh Marshall is taking his turn with this issue with his “Harder to Handle” editorials. Explaining white male privilege to white males is like explaining water to fish, so it’s interesting to watch white men start grappling with this. Too little too late, but welcome anyway. Once you see it, you can’t not see it, and this is a great post Tom for those who aren’t determined to remain blind.

  13. 13
    Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader says:

    Blogging about your blogging seems novel and edgy.

  14. 14
    Ash Can says:

    White supremacy as a social reality isn’t (any more) a matter of folks in white hoods or politicians standing around with axe-handles at the ready.

    Exactly. It took me, for one, quite some time to get it through my head that racism isn’t just active malice toward the other, and I feel safe in saying that the preponderance of whites don’t get this. It’s not enough to speak out against the obvious stuff such as hate speech and curtailment of voting rights. We whites have to realize that we’ve grown up steeped in racism and privilege — to the point where we don’t see it or recognize it at all — and that there are times when we need to let non-whites take the lead in pointing out instances of racism that society, and we, perpetrate and perpetuate.

  15. 15
    Betty Cracker says:

    Excellent piece, Tom!

  16. 16
    KG says:

    @RedKitten: i do not partake in the twitters, so two questions:

    First, what is the point of this particular hashtag? Second, why is white included? Is “creepy” something reserved for white guys only? Ok, fine, that was three questions.

  17. 17
    Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader says:

    @KG: Twitter is an updated form of writing on a bathroom stall wall. The hashtags are a way to differentiate between stalls.

  18. 18
    KG says:

    @Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader: oh, i know what twitter is and what hashtags are… i just wondered what this particular hashtag was about.

  19. 19
    Betty Cracker says:

    @Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader: That’s actually pretty damn spot-on. Thanks!

  20. 20
    SatanicPanic says:

    @RedKitten: If I were planning on arguing with a Libertarian I’d have already drank some gin

  21. 21
    Belafon says:

    @KG: If creepy was reserved for whites, then white would be redundant.

  22. 22

    @RedKitten: when i’m speaking with glibertarians, I just eat raw juniper berries and let them instantly ferment in by bile filled belly.

  23. 23
    KG says:

    @Belafon: perhaps, but i don’t think i’ve heard creepy used with respect to anyone who wasn’t white. i tend to use the phrase “creepy bastard” from time to time. just one of those things. again, mainly just curious as to what was behind the particular hashtag without going through twitter to find out

  24. 24
    boatboy_srq says:

    @RedKitten: More like talking to a single brick. Libertarians are remarkbably alike at that level, and expecting any other brick to respond any differently ignores the solidarity of The Wall.

    what really got me going, and what seems to me the crux of the matter, is that McCutcheon isn’t a stand-alone judgment

    THIS. The Roberts SCOTUS’ legacy will not be any single decision. It will be a sum of decisions which together describe an attempt to reinforce an unReconstructed posture.

    This is also why Tentherism is so dangerous: scrapping all amendments from the 11th onward wipes out most of the legal framework required to contest Roberts SCOTUS’ sum of decisions. And as an added bonus it eliminates term limits for the pResidency, which a pResident Rmoney could use to build the kind of pseudomonarchy he would assume is his Gawd-given Right as one of Teh Elect (contributing to all the “it’s our turn now!” whine-and-stomp tantrums).

  25. 25
    SatanicPanic says:

    @ranchandsyrup: That’s a great plan, but I actually don’t like gin so I’ll swallow a potato instead.

  26. 26
    JPL says:

    Tom, Thank you.

    Recently I was talking to a friend about what nonfiction books would make great movies. I mentioned The Spy who Loved and she mentioned Boys in the Boat. I am just finishing Devil in the Grove and that’s the one I’d love to see on the big screen. It’s time to remind ourselves that as much change that has occurred, more needs to be accomplished. You can’t do that if you pass laws restricting the right to vote, deregulation and letting only a few partake in government. There’s a sheriff, McCall, who was cited in the newspaper before the murders in Groveland as being responsible for preventing lynchings in Lake County, FL. Well guess what, it had nothing to do with valuing life, but more to do with protecting big citrus growers from bad publicity. It’s all about the money.

  27. 27
    Elizabelle says:

    Why aren’t we out in the streets about this, instead of commenting on blogs?

    What’s happening with the Supreme Court is worth a few marches.

  28. 28
    Elizabelle says:


    Thank you. Had not heard of Devil in the Grove; just requested it from my library.

    There’s a hold list; apparently it’s a popular book.

  29. 29
    Schlemizel says:

    @RedKitten: trying to explain to a libertarian

    Well, there’s yer problem right there!

  30. 30
    Felonius Monk says:

    it’s one that continues to tell the old story of white-erected obstacles to African Americans seeking to exercise political power

    But it is not just African Americans who they are attempting to dis-enfranchise by these actions. Although African Americans have the longest history of being denied the vote, the current dis-enfranchisement efforts are pretty much directed at all other non-white groups as well.

  31. 31
    Schlemizel says:

    I think we can see the new form that was probably inevitable from Mr. Atwaters famous rules for winning without saying that word out loud. This may indeed be the dawn of a new post-racial America. Oh sure, they will still be crushing people of color under their boot heel but this new paradigm will add 99% of the white folks too. This will make it all better.

  32. 32
    low-tech cyclist says:

    Tom – excellent piece. Depressing of course, but excellent.

    @the Conster: Didn’t know that ’til now.

    About 20 years ago, I came up with a somewhat longer acronym to explain many of the troubles of our system – TALOMSAATT, which stands for “there’s a lot of money sloshing around at the top” – but it never quite became the equal of TANSTAAFL, alas.

    CREAM is a lot more concise, hence much more useful.

  33. 33
    Belafon says:

    @boatboy_srq: Especially when Roberts uses his own previous decisions as proof that precedent allows him to strike down a law, such as the VRA.

  34. 34
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:


    That’s the Roberts court’s version of stare decisis.

  35. 35
    low-tech cyclist says:

    Oh yeah – anyone remember when Roberts said his job was merely the equivalent of calling balls and strikes? He forgot to mention the part about arbitrarily changing the size, shape, and location of the strike zone.

    I think it’s permanently located in the luxury boxes now, where the big money men can throw strikes from a few inches away, but nobody else can even see where it is anymore.

  36. 36
    Mike in NC says:


    It’s all about the money.

    That should be on all of our currency, instead of “In God We Trust”.

  37. 37
    kindness says:

    I got 86ed commenting at The Atlantic during Megan McArglebargles tenure there. And while I still read the occasional item, I don’t go there much. They were less than generous with me so I don’t really care to go there. My loss I guess.

  38. 38

    @SatanicPanic: I hear you. Gin makes me forget things. Which can be a blessing.

  39. 39
  40. 40
    Tom Levenson says:

    @JPL: I know Devil on the Grove — I was on the jury that shortlisted it for the Pulitzer it went on to win. Really good book, it is.

  41. 41
    RedKitten says:

    @KG: It started out as several women of colour sharing experiences and stories about the breathtakingly creepy racist shit that white guys have said to them. It turned into a hashtag as more and more women came out of the woodwork to share their stories as well.

    Of course, it was then promptly derailed by angry, “not-ALL-white-men!” white guys, who insisted that the very act of sharing stories of white racists is, in itself, racist as hell.

  42. 42
    RedKitten says:

    @ranchandsyrup: I’ll try that next time. If nothing else, though, at least it introduced me to a bunch of really smart, feisty women who were also trying to educate this fool.

  43. 43
    catclub says:

    @low-tech cyclist: I learned TAFFOARD.
    Take a flying fuck on a rolling Donut.

    Also, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”

  44. 44
    japa21 says:

    @RedKitten: Anybody bringing up that something is racist is playing the race card, and therefore, by definition, racist. Anybody bringing up the vast gap between the extremely wealthy and the rest of us is playing the class card and therefore is guilty of class warfare. And I am sure there are many other instances.

    What Tom brings up, of course, is how the two examples I mention are intertwined, and it is incumbent upon the wealthy and perhaps racist to turn the tables and act like the victims of reverse racism and class warfarism. They are never the ones at fault, only those who point out what they do.

  45. 45
    Belafon says:

    @RedKitten: As a middle aged white guy, I’ve had to grow up about that. Of course not all white guys are that way, and not every white guy that is that way will stay that way, but that doesn’t change the fact that these stories are true.

  46. 46

    @RedKitten: way to bright side, it RK. :)

  47. 47
  48. 48
    KG says:

    @RedKitten: ah, figures. there are a lot of days when i am kinda ashamed to be a white guy and claim latino/cuban over white because of it. but, like cole, i don’t recognize a lot of my white privilege experiences.

    @low-tech cyclist: in fairness, umpires change the size of the strike zone all the time, so he was totally being honest!

  49. 49
    John Roberts says:

    I can’t possibly be racist, just look at this! (puts arm around Clarence Thomas)

  50. 50
    swbarnes2 says:

    @Ash Can:

    Exactly. It took me, for one, quite some time to get it through my head that racism isn’t just active malice toward the other

    Yup, that’s part of the privilege…defining racism as what the white person feels, instead of what the non-white person has to deal with.

    You see the same thing in sexual harassment cases; the studious effort to make the woman’s feelings irrelevant, and the man’s intentions all-controlling when it comes defining if anything bad happened.

  51. 51
    C.V. Danes says:

    Roberts is relatively young, and will be driving the court for decades. You think he’s bad now? He’s just getting started.

  52. 52
    C.V. Danes says:

    Shameless self-plugging alert: I also wrote something along these lines on my blog a while ago — All our lives a slave…

  53. 53
    gvg says:

    The money thing is JUST racist. It’s super classist. Yo think those 400 rich white guys have any sympathy at all for middle class or poor whites? It’s dangerous to all of us. It would be good if more whites realized how lucky we are but in regards to focusing peoples attentions on the nutso antidemocratic decisions the court is making on campaign contributions, I think its strategically an error to start with pointing out it’s racist. that makes some people tune out that shouldn’t and it’s just a part of the SET of problems that come from it. One of the western states had campaign contribution limits thrown out by the Supreme Court recently-laws they had had in place for about a century because back then the big mining companies were buying the legislature. There were very few black citizens being deprived of their rights back then-it was whites.
    Company towns and corporations running my life are something I fear. It has happened before. It’s in danger of repeating. The rich could do this indifferently to us even if there were no blacks or other minorities. the balance is gone.
    I have noticed that most of the worst greedheads seem to overlap racism but not all and that doesn’t preclude them also being anti ordinary workers.

  54. 54
    Kay says:

    This is good news for voting rights:

    A new PPP poll shows Nina Turner leading Jon Husted by one point in the race for Ohio Secretary of State. Turner leads with 45% versus Husted’s 44%. 12% chose “Not Sure.”
    Turner leads by seven points with Independents, three points with women, four points with 18-to-29 year olds and and 16 points with 30-to-45 year olds.

    Turner is wonderful in person. She has an enormous amount of, I don’t know, grace or presence or something. IMO this is a very good number for her, as the challenger.

    Also, here’s the Voters Bill of Rights in Ohio

  55. 55
    WaterGirl says:

    @Kay: Kay! So glad to see you here. I had been wondering about where you’ve been because I hadn’t seen you here in white awhile, and my wonder started to turn to worry earlier this week. Yay!

  56. 56
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Mike in NC: In Mammon We Trust. All others pay cash.

  57. 57
    Tokyokie says:

    @Ash Can: I re-evaluated my notions of racism about 30 years ago when I was living in the South and worked in an office with a bunch of college-educated white guys, who thought because they weren’t droolingly stupid Klan types, they weren’t racist. And because they were secure in their knowledge that they weren’t racist, they were comfortable making constant racist gibes, because, you know, they weren’t really racist.

    My time in that job was probably the worst of my life.

    Probably a year ago, I labeled those who pursue voter-suppression policies for the benefit of the GOP as “apartheid Republicans,” because apartheid was a political system, that at its core, restricted the franchise — and, as a result, the benefits of the political system — to a narrow social class. I’ve used this with a couple of Republican types I know, and it seemed to sting. Not enough for them to change their behavior, mind you, but just like those nitwits with whom I once worked, nobody appreciates being lumped in with a brutishly evil political movement.

    Mind you, most apartheid Republicans will deny that they’re racist themselves as they embrace policies intended to restrict power to the narrow social class of which they are members. But if anything, I think they’re worse than overt racists, who are at least are not delusional about their beliefs. For apartheid Republicans to embrace policies that they know will have a racist effect and being unconcerned about such fallout as long as those policies result in their social, political and economic benefit, is precisely the sort of behavior to which Edmund Burke was referring when he laid out the terms for victory to triumph.

  58. 58
    Mnemosyne says:

    @the Conster:

    Once you see it, you can’t not see it …

    This right here. It’s like taking the red pill in The Matrix.

  59. 59
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Felonius Monk:

    But it is not just African Americans who they are attempting to dis-enfranchise by these actions. Although African Americans have the longest history of being denied the vote, the current dis-enfranchisement efforts are pretty much directed at all other non-white groups as well.

    I think you’re not seeing the difference between who a particular action is directed to and who may also end up as collateral damage. The current disenfranchisement laws are absolutely directed at both African-Americans and Latino Americans and specifically designed to reduce their ability to vote.

    The fact that a few elderly white nuns also get caught up in the machinery doesn’t mean that the law was directed at disenfranchising elderly white nuns. It just means that they accidentally shared a few characteristics with the people the law was actually aimed at suppressing.

    Even in the most restrictive voting state, there is very, very little chance that I would not be permitted to vote, because I’m white and middle-class and have all of the necessary paperwork. Heck, I didn’t even change my name when I got married, so they can’t catch me that way. And that’s the point.

  60. 60
    bluefoot says:


    that’s part of the privilege…defining racism as what the white person feels, instead of what the non-white person has to deal with

    That is a very nice, very succinct way to put it.

    I’m sure that every single potential employer didn’t *intend* to be racist when they asked me if I’m “really” American, if I was “really” born here, if my parents are American, and if they came here legally (the idea they also might have been born here somehow isn’t a possibility that enters their minds)….and then told me there are no openings for anyone who needs a visa AFTER I’ve answered yes to all their dubiously legal questions. But guess what? I still don’t get an interview, much less a job because despite what they see on my US passport, to them not white = not employable. “Intent” can kiss my *ss.

  61. 61
    Kay says:


    Hello! I’m busy, but fine.

  62. 62
    ruemara says:

    Bravo, just, bravo.

  63. 63
    dp says:

    When I’m feeling generous, I’m willing to concede that they are driven by power and money, and that race is just collateral damage.

    Because of their electoral tactics, I don’t often feel generous.

  64. 64
    WaterGirl says:

    @Kay: Glad you are well!

  65. 65
    liberal says:

    IMHO it’s not so much white supremacy as it is asshole supremacy.

  66. 66
    kindness says:

    Went to the Atlantic and read the article. Good one Tom. You got most of the gist here but the forum at the Atlantic is a better visibility so it should do well…..among the sane. Lotta insane about. Hmmmm, why could that be? I wonder?

Comments are closed.