Let’s Talk About the Economic Roots of White Supremacy

In my Tuesday column on the political incentives within the Republican Party, I made an analogy to the struggle over civil rights in the midcentury Democratic Party. I brought up the Dixiecrats and mentioned their opposition to labor rights as well as civil rights.

Let’s talk about that.

Most Americans tend to think of Jim Crow almost exclusively in terms of racist oppression of Black Americans, but the Jim Crow system was as much about the preservation of a particular economic order as it was about the racist subjugation of Black people. In fact, the two were intertwined. By disenfranchising, segregating and terrorizing Black people, Southern elites could fragment and segment the entire working class as well as maintain a large pool of exploited, low-wage labor.

Yes, most ordinary white Southerners were also invested in a racist social order. But the degree of that investment — the extent to which it was either challenged or nurtured — was structured by the reality of institutional white supremacy. Jim Crow helped produce racists (and reproduce racist ideologies) as much as it was produced by them.

But that’s a bit of a sidebar. The larger point is that Southern elites were both virulently racist and fanatically opposed to organized labor, especially the broad-based industrial unions that tried to organize across racial lines. By even attempting to organize Black workers alongside white ones, unions like the Industrial Workers of the World in the early part of the 20th century and the Congress of Industrial Organizations during the period of the New Deal threatened to undermine the entire Jim Crow system, which rested on the total domination of the economic order by capital as well as racial segregation. (The C.I.O.’s postwar effort to unionize the South, “Operation Dixie,” failed for many reasons, not the least the ferocious opposition of white business and political elites in the region.)

The anti-union South Carolina governor (and later U.S. senator) Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrats’ candidate for president against Harry Truman in the 1948 election, embodied these two pillars of the Jim Crow system. A staunch segregationist who condemned civil rights laws as a “totalitarian” imposition on states’ rights, Thurmond was also, his biographer Joseph Crespino writes, “one of the Senate’s most determined foes of labor unions and one of its greatest friends to business interests. His disdain for labor bosses became interchangeable with his loathing for civil rights.”

If we understand Jim Crow as a system of labor suppression as well as racial oppression, we can see more clearly how key elements of the Jim Crow order survived the end of formal segregation and racist disenfranchisement. “In the end,” writes the labor scholar Michael Goldfield in “The Southern Key: Class, Race, & Radicalism in the 1930s & 1940s,” “the civil rights movement, for all its heroic struggles and important successes, was not able to confront the economic roots of white supremacy.”

Which is to say that the economy of the South would retain its low-wage, exploitative character, and its politics would remain, for the most part, in the hands of powerful business interests. And while the region would see real economic growth and the rise of a Black middle class, it would also continue to see vast inequality structured by race hierarchy, with segregated Black communities bearing the brunt of disinvestment, deindustrialization and capital flight.

Put another way, the high unemployment rates of the Black Belt are as much a legacy of Jim Crow as the persistent efforts to keep Black Americans away from the ballot box are.

What I Wrote

My Tuesday column was on the structural forces and internal incentives that have pushed ambitious Republicans to make common cause with MAGA election deniers.

My Friday column was on the cadre of hyperpartisan, pro-Trump judges who threaten to fatally undermine rule of law, and what to do about them.

And in the latest episode of my podcast with John Ganz, we discussed the 1992 crime thriller “White Sands.”

Now Reading

Charlotte Shane on the right to not be pregnant for Harper’s Magazine.

Moira Donegan on “choice feminism” for her Substack newsletter.

Verlyn Klinkenborg on Brian Wilson for The New York Review of Books.

Michelle Chen on international labor solidarity for Dissent magazine.

Gabriel Winant on Barbara Ehrenreich for n+1 magazine.

Feedback If you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please consider recommending it to your friends. They can sign up here. If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week’s newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at [email protected]. You can follow me on Twitter (@jbouie), Instagram and TikTok.

Photo of the Week

Credit…Jamelle Bouie

I was recently in Philadelphia and spent the better part of a morning taking a walk through the city. I had my camera and obviously took pictures. Here is one of them.

Now Eating: Sheet-Pan Paneer Tikka

I would file this one under “extremely easy and very good.” As always when I share a paneer recipe, I recommend that you make your own; it is easier than you think and cheaper than store-bought. You can find directions for making paneer here. Recipe comes from NYT Cooking. Makes about 5 servings.


  • 1½ pounds paneer (fresh or store-bought), cut into 1-inch cubes

  • 3 tablespoons neutral oil like sunflower or canola

  • 3 tablespoons full-fat Greek yogurt

  • 1 tablespoon ginger paste or finely grated ginger (from about a 2-inch piece)

  • 1 tablespoon garlic paste or finely grated garlic (from about 6 cloves)

  • 1 tablespoon coriander powder

  • 1 tablespoon garam masala

  • 1 teaspoon Kashmiri or other red chile powder

  • ½ teaspoon turmeric powder

  • Salt

  • 2 medium bell peppers, seeded and chopped into 1-inch pieces

  • 1 medium red onion, quartered, with each quarter then cut into halves

  • 2 tablespoons melted ghee or butter for basting

  • ½ lemon, juiced (about 4 teaspoons)

  • Roti and chutney (for serving)


If using store-bought paneer, soak it in hot water for 10 minutes and drain. Arrange one oven rack in the center of the oven and a second one closest to the broiler heating element. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Line a large sheet pan with foil and brush it with 1 tablespoon oil. Set aside.

In a large bowl, mix the rest of the oil with yogurt, ginger paste, garlic paste, coriander powder, garam masala, red chile powder, turmeric powder and 1 teaspoon salt to make the marinade.

Add paneer, bell peppers and onion to the bowl with the marinade and mix until evenly coated. (If you have the time, marinate the paneer and vegetables for 20 minutes and up to 2 hours for even more flavor.)

On the prepared sheet pan, evenly spread out the marinated paneer and vegetables, and bake on the middle oven rack until the paneer edges start to turn golden, about 8 minutes.

Take the pan out of the oven and brush the paneer with melted ghee. Turn the oven to broil, place the paneer and vegetables on the top rack and broil on high until the paneer turns golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Take the paneer and vegetables out of the oven and sprinkle with lemon juice and additional salt, if desired. Serve with roti and chutney or by itself.

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