The Challenge of Collective Action in Racialized Market Culture

By John Brueggemann

I will never forget April 29, 1992. In Atlanta, “the city too busy to hate,” we eagerly awaited the verdict for the police officers who beat Rodney King. When the decisions were announced, everyone I knew was aware that vastly different reactions were unfolding among blacks and whites.

That same week Freaknik was held, which was a large annual gathering of students from historically black colleges. Thousands of kids came to Atlanta to party. They were known for riding around on top of cars and disrupting traffic downtown, which of course drove the city’s leadership crazy. Out of curiosity I took a walk in Piedmont Park one afternoon to check it out. The whole thing seemed pretty familiar (a bunch of drunk college students having fun and trying to hook up) and notably less dramatic than the media coverage had suggested. As I walked back to my car, several young black men drove by. One yelled: “hey man, what you think about that verdict?” The car slowed as I kept walking. I said: “It was fucked up.” “You don’t sound like you mean it,” he said, with a note of menace. I got focused as I took the last few steps to my car, got in, and left. 

As I drove away, I had several thoughts. First, how dare those guys presume they know what I feel? They put me in a box because of my white skin. The truth is I recognized the deep injustice in the verdicts and felt wounded by it. Second, I realized that I was more than a little frightened. Young men, free time, booze, anger, a convenient target—and a rather slow gazelle at that. What could go wrong? Third, oh! This is what marginalized people just like those fellows feel all the time. I also realized as I reflected on this little episode that lasted a few moments that I would be home and safe in no time and the whole thing would remain an intellectual topic for me.

Later it occurred to me that the white fear of young black men was something that I brought to that encounter. I speculated that the other guys carried with them deep disappointment in how American institutions have failed to realize their stated ideals of fairness. More generally, I recognized on that day that simmering racial meaning had spilled out into the open for all to see. Not unlike July 13, 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted (see Pew Research 2012a).

As ineluctable as the progress in American race relations is—how can we not feel edified by President Obama’s elections?—this deep moral stain always reappears.

“So America was divided by race in 1963 and it is divided by race today,” the columnist Ross Douthat recently suggested. “But it is not divided in anything like the same way. And the case for optimism about racial polarization starts with what the fire hoses and bombs of ’63 signify about the difference between the civil rights era and our own” (Douthat 3013).

Of course he is right. But the same thing was no doubt said by many people in 1963 about the previous half century. And they were right too. (Think of Plessey vs. Ferguson). Such progress is important to recognize, but shouldn’t be confused for justice per se. That project, it somehow needs to be reiterated, is far from complete.

This has been an especially hard year in this regard. Cascading events have battered the conscience of Americans, pushing us in different directions. “Impeach the Half-White Muslim!” read a sign at a recent anti-Obama protest. The ignorance of the likes of Paula Deehn and Ted Nugent. Most importantly, the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. We might add the plethora of self-serving observations on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which has been contorted to justify every sort of stance. (See the commentary of Ross Douthat, Cal Thomas, Kathleen Parker, and Pat Buchanan, for example.)

Each of these moments carries symbolic weight that inflames the moral sensibilities of Americans in varied ways. As consequential as these discrete events are in and of themselves, their true import is how they are linked to broad underlying patterns.

Crime rates are falling. But African Americans still perpetrate and are victim to a disproportionate rate of violent crimes—persistent patterns that foment white fears. Such fears surely contribute to an unfair criminal justice system. If the victim is white, conviction is more likely. If the accused is white, acquittal is more likely. The vast majority of those targeted by Stop And Frisk policies are people of color (see Federal Bureau of Investigation; New York Civil Liberties Union).

The proliferation of guns also appears to have a racialized element. Guided by the gun industry’s lobby and its PR arm, the National Rifle Association, various folks have promoted the right to preemptively “defend yourself.” Against whom is in many cases thinly veiled.

Racial concerns remain central, if similarly veiled, in politics. The push for immigration reform is stymied for layered reasons, which include xenophobia. Voter suppression is again an accepted practice just as the Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder (Cole 2013). Efforts to remove Food Stamps from the delayed Farm Bill would have lop-sided impact on families of color.

Perhaps the most enduring racial divide is the uneven distribution of economic resources. Blacks are twice as likely to be unemployed as whites (Austin 2013). The continuing decline of organized labor has been advanced by the recent assault on the traditional union stronghold of public sector workers—developments that also harm people of color disproportionately (Rosenfeld and Kleyklamp 2012). By 2010, white families had six times as much wealth as non-white families (Urban Institute 2013).

Collectively, these patterns demonstrate the persistent significance of race (see also Pew Research 2012b; 2013). In light of these trends and the events that have repeatedly made headlines this year, we should indeed wonder about the prospects for collective action. (As a matter of full disclosure, I will note that I am an advocate of such action.) We know that there is deepening frustration and a lot of activity. According to various media sources, protests erupted in over a 100 cities after the Zimmerman verdict. Direct action is taking place across the country in response to immigration policies, Stop And Frisk practices, the voter ID campaigns, Stand Your Ground laws, and other political disputes. Whether any of this activity will cohere into something more durable and consequential remains to be seen. At the moment, I am pessimistic.

One issue, of course, is whether those directly affected by the various policies and practices in question can count on any reliable and resourced allies to join their efforts. The multifaceted failures of American institutions to provide a level playing field for people of color in general have been visible this year for anyone who looked. For some reason, I suspect, many willfully avoided looking.

Why? There are of course numerous factors. One cluster of issues that appears especially important revolves around market culture. Among other things, it fosters apathy about injustice. I attempted to document the moral disorder resulting from expansive market culture in my book, Rich, Free and Miserable: The Failure of Success in America (2012). The logic of the market has spread past the boundaries of the economic sphere into every part of our lives. The idea that everything is for sale and you ought to get as much as you can has motivated workaholism, hyperconsumerism, overscheduling, greed, narcissism, waste, and tolerance for inequality. The institutional and cultural forces advancing this sensibility have overwhelmed other counterbalancing institutions, notably in civil society (e.g., religion, unions, education, media).

This orientation motivates narrow self-interest, the preoccupation for “my hard-earned money,” and hostility towards any perceived threat to such spoils. Market culture has little regard for social capital, neighborhoods, or families and tends to encourage commerce, sprawl, and gated communities. Closely related to these patterns is disdain for anyone who is not considered a productive part of the system. Those who are homeless, incarcerated, infirm or elderly no longer have full standing as human beings. For some people entranced by market culture, young black men are triply tainted. They constitute a danger relative to the shrinking demographic and cultural dominance of European Americans, they threaten the material comfort of peaceful, suburban life, and they are increasingly irrelevant to the workforce and therefore functionally expendable as citizens. At least such perceptions make for potent judgments — and lousy allies in any social movement activity.

No one wants to be put in a box. I didn’t like it during that moment back in the spring of 1992. I believe the men who spoke to me that day were seething about the effects of toxic stereotypes. And I don’t want to do the same thing to affluent white people now. Market culture is not the only factor in play here. But I suspect it is part of the explanation for why building a broad coalition around racial injustice is so challenging right now. Part of the task, therefore, is to expose not just the aspects of market culture that exacerbate the plight of marginalized people but also the related factors that actually harm affluent people.


Austin, Alergnon. 2013. “The Unfinished March.” Economic Policy Institute.

Cole, David. 2013. “Equality and the Roberts Court: Four Decisions.” The New York Review of Books. August 15. Pp. 28-30.

Brueggemann, John. 2012. Rich, Free and Miserable: The Failure of Success in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Douthat, Ross. 2013. “A Different Kind of Division.” New York Times.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. Uniform Crime Reports. Accessed August 26, 2013.

New York Civil Liberties Union. “Stop and Frisk Facts.” Accessed August 26, 2013.

Pew Research. 2012a. “Big Racial Divide over Zimmerman Verdict.”

Pew Research. 2012b. “Views of Law Enforcement, Racial Progress and News Coverage of Race”

Pew Research. 2013. “For African Americans Discrimination is Not Dead.”

Rosenfeld, Jake and Mererdith Kleyklamp. 2012. “Organized Labor and Racial Wage Inequality in the United States.” American Journal of Sociology. 117: 1460.

Urban Institute. 2013. “Less Than Equal: Racial Disparities in Wealth Accumulation.”

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Racist and Racial Justice Movements

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