The Emotional Politics of Racism
How Feelings Trump Facts in an Era of Colorblindness
Paula Ioanide




Affect. . . . Term [that] connotes any affective state, whether painful or pleasant, whether vague or well-defined, and whether it is manifested in the form of a massive discharge or in the form of a general mood. . . . The affect is the qualitative expression of the quantity of instinctual energy and of its fluctuations.

—J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis

To dismiss race as myth is not to underestimate its power. Race, like religion, is immune to critiques of science and logic because it rests on belief. And people need beliefs. Although science has discredited the biological underpinnings of the notion of race, faith rushes in to seal the cracks, paper over glaring omissions in arrested explanations of human difference offered by racial ideology.

—John Edgar Wideman, “Fatheralong”

This book is about the primacy of emotion and affect in contemporary expressions of racial violence and discrimination. I show that emotional rewards and losses play a central role in shaping how and why people invest in racism, nativism, and imperialism in the United States. Public feelings about “criminality,” “terrorism,” “welfare dependence,” and “illegal immigration” are not simply individual sentiments; they have been essential to manufacturing consent for military-carceral expansion and the retreat from social welfare goods. The intensification of socioeconomic inequalities, state violence, and punitive control in the post–civil rights era has largely been achieved through the organization of public feelings rather than facts. How U.S. publics dominantly feel about crime, terrorism, welfare, and immigration often seems to trump concrete facts and evidence about these politicized matters.

Emotions shape the ways that people experience their worlds and interactions. They give people’s psychic realities and ideological convictions (however fictional or unfounded) their sense of realness. Emotions cinch or unravel people’s sense of individual and group identity. They help motivate actions and inactions, often in unconscious or preconsciously reflexive ways. Although they may seem fleeting and incalculable, emotions attached to race and sexuality have their own unique logics of gain and loss. Thus emotions function much like economies; they have mechanisms of circulation, accumulation, expression, and exchange that give them social currency, cultural legibility, and political power.1

How, for example, might we measure the emotional and psychological impact of losing white cultural dominance in a town where the Latino/a immigrant population suddenly rises? What price might be placed on the emotional high of feeling morally superior to “Arab terrorists”? How do we gauge the impact of collective guilt and shame associated with seeing the photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib, Iraq? How do we quantify the pleasurable thrills or psychological losses involved in a white police officer’s sexual and physical violation of a Haitian immigrant? How might the overwhelming affective stigmas generally attached to welfare and public housing accelerate the neoliberal restructuring of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? We may not be able to compute such emotional rewards and losses in the same ways that we are able to calculate the monetary advantages and disadvantages produced by racially and sexually discriminatory systems. Even so, socially shared emotions about race and sexuality have recognizable histories of circulation and expression. Because they produce real consequences that often defy reason and evidence, our hesitation to understand emotions as socially shared economies, rather than peripheral individuated sentiments, potentially limits the way we conceptualize and approach antiracist struggles for justice.

Emotional economies that are attached to race and sexuality are an important site of inquiry because they have the unique ability to foreclose people’s cognitive receptivity. The presumption that we can combat systemic gendered racism, nativism, and imperialism by generating more empirical facts and more reasonable arguments is severely challenged by the reality that people’s emotions often prevent and inhibit genuine engagements with knowledge. Any time our emotional structures experience danger, fear, or anxiety—affects that are all too common in discussions of systemic oppression—our capacity to integrate knowledge and participate in communicative acts also tends to diminish. Conversely, our emotional attachments to particular desires, enjoyments, and pleasures can also function to foreclose our willingness to assimilate information and to act on it. As such, in this book I not only try to show the primacy of affect in perpetuating gendered racism, nativism, and imperialism but also argue that we must contend with the distinct operations of affect and emotion if we are to unhinge the embodied and unconscious dimensions of oppression.

My focus on the significance of affective and emotional economies in post–civil rights instances of gendered racism, nativism, and imperialism is not intended to diminish the importance of monetary interests at stake in these systems. The case studies explored in this book show that people’s conscious and/or unconscious investments in gendered racial discrimination and violence can rarely be disentangled from localized, national, and global struggles over profits, property, and advantages. Rather, I am interested in the ways that people’s emotional and psychological investments compound, mitigate, or sometimes take precedence over their moneyed interests.

Indeed, focusing on the centrality of affect and emotion in systems of oppression helps us explain why many working- and middle-class U.S. constituents across the political spectrum have overwhelmingly endorsed policies and practices that are detrimental to their moneyed interests in the post–civil rights era. These economic losses did not take place all at once, nor were they evenly experienced across different racial groups and geographies. If the effects of these shifts have been detrimental to a majority of working- and middle-class Americans, they have been downright devastating for impoverished communities of color and communities across the globe.

Scholars have extensively documented the complex factors and political activities that have contributed to the expansion of military carcerality, neoliberal economic policies, and social wage retrenchment.2 Yet the paradox of why Americans have chosen to act against their own economic interests in the post–civil rights era continues to puzzle us. Some scholars claim that U.S. publics are simply ignorant, misinformed, or tricked. Constituents buy into politicians’ promises to defend their social, religious, and economic interests (e.g., abortion, the relationship between church and state, the right to bear arms, lower taxes), even though in reality these same politicians enact policies that are economically detrimental to them. Others claim that contemporary U.S. capitalism encourages political apathy in its populace. By preoccupying everyday people with quotidian matters such as working, paying down their debts, and engaging in consumerist culture, the United States cultivates a formal democracy rather than a participatory one. In turn, this allows an oligarchy of ruling elites to manipulate national and global wealth and markets relatively unperturbed.

Certainly, many of these explanations offer partial truths. But they generally leave unexamined the function of public beliefs, fears, and desires in the construction of political will or complicity. More important, they tend to ignore or minimize the distinctly racialized and sexualized aspects of these emotional economies, considering both gendered racial oppression and public feelings peripheral to the ways broader macroeconomic interests and politics are constituted.

By contrast, in this book I argue that hegemonic public fears and stigmas, whose primary threats were constructed as simultaneously color-blind and race- and gender-specific, were the central conduits for creating public desires that legitimated state and neoliberal restructuring toward military-carceral expansion and social wage divestment. As I show in the introduction to Part I, post–cold war U.S. military expansion was commonly legitimated through putatively color-blind fears of terrorism, yet this fear distinctly posited “hyperviolent” and “hyperpatriarchal” Arab and/or Muslim men as the embodiment of this threat. Post-1980s prison expansion was explicitly legitimated through purportedly color-blind panics over criminality, yet these fears overwhelmingly associated the threats of crime with Black and Latino “hyperviolent” men who had supposedly abandoned their responsibilities to family and community. By the 1990s the normalized logics of criminality were extended to increasingly target “Latino/a illegal aliens,” whereas after September 11, 2001, the idea of “suspicious” Arab, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants residing within U.S. borders further fueled emotional economies of anxiety and fear.

Beginning in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s successful anti–big government platform initiated widespread divestment from social welfare goods such as affordable housing, education, transportation, environmental protections, and other social services. As I argue in the introduction to Part II, such divestment was primarily legitimated through the racialized and gendered affective stigmatization of what came to be called welfare dependency. Reaganism’s demonization of the “cultural pathologies of poverty” claimed to be color-blind but was primarily associated with single Black women with children in visual and discursive practices. Such logics of “undeserving dependency” were flexibly reformulated to also scapegoat Latina women and nonwhite immigrants in the 1990s, when constituents in California voted to partake in the pleasurable powers to exclude undocumented immigrants from what they possessively considered “their” public goods and resources. The Clinton administration’s welfare reform policies essentially nationalized these resentments and stigmatizations when it ended state subsidies for documented immigrants and drastically reduced public assistance programs in 1996. As the chapters in Part II reveal, the dominance of these emotional economies eventually came back to haunt those who had thought they were exclusively entitled to the nation’s resources and social welfare goods. Neoliberal and state asset stripping left vast majorities worse off economically; yet publics continued to choose to keep their increasingly impoverished states rather than associate themselves with emotionally stigmatized social welfare goods. Rather than suffer the emotional risks of being considered dependent for taking state “handouts,” many elected to support privatization, work harder, and incur more and more debt (which deregulation happily enabled banks and lenders to provide at increased limits).

Although numerous state actors, politicians, media representatives, and activists participated in constructing these racialized and gendered emotional economies and sociopolitical shifts, I am more preoccupied with understanding why hegemonic ideologies, fears, and desires appealed to average Americans in the post–civil rights era. How did these beliefs, fears, and desires enable U.S. constituents across liberal and conservative spectrums to shape their sense of racial, gender, and national identity and power? How did they help to exacerbate and assuage their crises or to construct their political purpose or passivity?

My contention is that liberal and conservative constituents were not simply fooled into endorsing policies and practices that gradually proved detrimental to most of them. Rather, dominant American majorities invested in these shifts precisely because the state’s proposed remedies to the purported threats of criminality, terrorism, welfare dependence, and illegal immigration seemed to provide solutions to what a lot of people actually feared and desired. Dominant U.S. constituents came to desire and support shifts toward military carcerality because they generated the affective rewards of state protection, national security, and global dominance. These shifts enabled people to experience affectively aggressive thrills and enjoyments through their identification with the state’s power, allowing them to vicariously feel the pleasures of punishing, policing, and excluding so-called illegal immigrants, suspected terrorists, and supposedly incorrigible criminals. These shifts offered a sense of psychological, social, and affective righteousness to those who were invested in notions of law and order, just as the stigmatization of welfare dependence amplified emotional investments in individual self-reliance and personal responsibility. State divestments from the social wage gained their legitimacy by rewarding people with a sense of affective superiority over those deemed undeserving. These economies of emotional reward and stigma were overwhelmingly attached to people of color, nonwhite immigrants, undocumented migrants of color, and/or poor people. They worked because they reified preexisting sensibilities and feelings about race, gender, sexuality, class, and national identity, particularly among dominant white middle- to upper-class constituencies.

Popular beliefs and emotions attached to crime, terrorism, welfare, and immigration did not just guide public support for expanding military carcerality and social welfare retrenchment; they also tended to remain impervious to arguments and evidence that proved that the panics over criminality, terrorism, welfare dependence, and immigration were largely manufactured or hyperbolic. In other words, once these manufactured fears and desires situated themselves in U.S. constituents’ affective structures and ideological worldviews, they became uniquely personal and crucial to constituents’ sense of identity, to how they organized their purpose, and how they justified their actions. Hence, affective economies structured people’s beliefs about crime, terrorism, immigration, and welfare in ways that were distinct from the logics of reason.

Racialized fears over losing monetary advantages have a long history of making Americans leap from the logics of reason to the unique operations of emotion. The case studies investigated in this book indicate that beliefs, fears, and desires about crime, terrorism, welfare, and immigration are sometimes expressly compounded by moneyed interests. In post-Katrina New Orleans, for example, moneyed investments in neoliberal development and privatization were reinforced by predominantly white residents’ affective contempt for largely Black public housing residents who were demonized for being overly “dependent” on state resources. Together, these moneyed and affective investments produced a conservative and liberal consensus to eliminate structurally sound public housing units whose occupants were overwhelmingly poor elderly people and Black women with children. The propertied interests of predominantly white residents were central to endorsing these spatialized removals. In turn, these propertied defenses also facilitated the moneyed interests of with private corporate developers (see Chapter 3).

At other times, emotional and psychological investments in preserving specific notions of racial, cultural, national, familial, or sexual power and identity became dissociated from or even worked against moneyed interests. Although they initially sought to defend the property values of predominantly white neighborhoods and to restrict rental housing solely to documented residents and U.S. citizens, nativist organizers in Escondido, California, actually hurt some of the moneyed economies of their town because of anti-Latino/a hatred and discrimination. Motivated by affective investments in preserving white American cultural and spatial dominance in Escondido, nativist advocates decided to accept certain monetary losses in order to reproduce psychological and affective investments in whiteness, nativism, and citizenship (see Chapter 4).

Similarly, the embodied psychosexual enjoyments involved in white police officers’ literal acts of brutality and sexualized violence against Haitian immigrant Abner Louima might be interpreted as having worked against the moneyed and legal interests of the New York City Police Department and the state, which lost an estimated $8.5 million for Officer Justin Volpe’s violation of Louima’s civil rights (see Chapter 1). That egregious case of police violence shows that the affective rewards sought through brutal assertions of white patriarchal police authority sometimes trump considerations of state legitimacy and money.

Finally, the interplay between moneyed and affective interests can also produce mixed results. The U.S. military’s sexualized torture of Abu Ghraib prisoners produced an international crisis of U.S. state and military legitimacy in Iraq and across the world. As such, the tortures at Abu Ghraib can be interpreted to have worked against American monetary investments in the Iraq War and the war on terror, given that U.S. state legitimacy is often needed to advance economic imperialism. At the same time, the sexualized terror at Abu Ghraib might be read as normative military methods used to gain U.S. dominance in Iraq. Such dominance can ultimately reinforce the U.S. state’s ability to excavate economic benefits through imperial warfare and occupation (see Chapter 2).

I use the phrase dominant Americans or dominant U.S. publics throughout this book to encapsulate a series of culturally mediated affective assumptions about who is presumed to belong to the United States and who feels entitled to dictate its political future. It is not just that dominant Americans have greater access to political power and representation or that this power often correlates with having greater levels of wealth, income, and social influence. Dominant Americans are generally not questioned about their right to be in the United States; they do not feel that it is necessary to use hyphenated national identities because people generally do not question their American-ness. They do not have to answer questions about where they originated because of linguistic accents. They show up at protests or community meetings feeling entitled to vote, speak, and advocate. They tend to assume that the police and other state agents are there to protect them rather than to violate them. And they tend to assume a natural right to dictate what to do with foreigners, migrants, and other populations they designate unfit for national or community belonging.

Clearly, almost all the affective presumptions and embodied entitlements assumed by dominant Americans correlate with white racial identity and/or U.S. citizenship. Although we may presume that white people are born with such entitlements, it is important to understand that dominant white Americans’ embodied organization is also affirmed by projections, external gazes, and cultural assumptions expressed by other people, including people of color. In other words, it is not just that white American citizens give these entitlements to themselves, or that legal and institutional systems constantly reinforce them; the practices of other people award these entitlements to dominant Americans by virtue of not questioning, not disrupting, or not reformulating the cultural associations that coalesce into American-ness = citizenship = whiteness.

Even more complicated is the fact that although many people in the United States do not fit the racial, ethnic, linguistic, stylistic, or religious molds for what is affectively and intuitively presumed to be normatively American, they nonetheless struggle for inclusion in this category and identify with its core definitions and values. They do so for understandable reasons. Being presumed to belong to America gives people social affirmation and much greater access to resources, jobs, and legal rights. Part of the reason I do not use “white American citizens” instead of “dominant U.S. publics” is because I want to account for the political impact created by the identifications and aspirations of those who seek inclusion into American-ness. Immigrants, people of color, religious minorities, people with linguistic accents, and even some poor whites are certainly not affectively assumed to belong to the normative ideals of the United States. Nor do they presume to dictate the fate of others with the same levels of embodied entitlement as white American citizens who are middle and upper class. But their aspirational identification with the rights, resources, economic logics, cultural values, and racial restrictions embedded in current normative definitions of American-ness often reinforces dominant political views and practices. In other words, my phrase dominant U.S. publics tries to suggest that whiteness and American-ness manifest in embodied identities; but they are also ideological worldviews and value systems that people of color and minorities can (consciously or unconsciously) reinforce.


1. Sara Ahmed argues that emotions are an effect of the circulation between particular signs and meanings and that these constitute “affective economies.” See Sara Ahmed, “Affective Economies,” Social Text 22, no. 2 (2004): 117–39; and Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004). For an overview of scholars who theorize public feelings, see, Ann Cvetkovich, “Public Feelings,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 459–468.

2. On the expansion of military carcerality, see, for example, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010); Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (New York: Verso, 1999); Julia Sudbury, ed., Global Lockdown: Race, Gender, and the Prison-Industrial Complex (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, new ed. (New York: Verso, 2006).

On social wage retrenchment, see, for example, Linda F. Williams, The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003); Michael K. Brown, Remaking the Welfare State: Retrenchment and Social policy in America and Europe (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988); Marisa Chappell, The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty, and Politics in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Robert Lieberman, Shifting the Color Line: Race and the American Welfare State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Jill Quadagno, The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1994); and Kenneth Neubeck and Noel A. Cazenave, Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card Against America’s Poor (New York: Routledge, 2001).

On the rise of neoliberalism, see, for example, David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005); Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003); Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (New York: New Press, 2007); and Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2007).