Skip to main content

Forceful Federalism against American Racial Inequality

  • Desmond King

Why, many Americans rightly ask, can material racial inequality and widespread segregation still persist 50 years after the enactment of key civil rights legislation and eight years after the election of an African American to the nation’s highest office? Many from outside the US pose similar questions about modern America. The explanation, I argue, lies with inconsistent and fluctuating levels of federal engagement to building material racial equality. National engagement fluctuates because it is energetically resisted and challenged by opponents of racial progress. This vulnerability to disruption is exposed by varying strategies of resistance, some fiscal, some violent, some judicial, some desultory and some combining violent protest against change with local electoral triumphs for anti-reformers. Public resistance to employing national resources to reduce inequality encouraged a de-racialization strategy amongst many African American candidates for elected office who opt to de-emphasize issues of racial inequality in campaigns and in office. Whatever the means, the effect is uniform: the slowing down or outright death of federal civil rights activism.

Hide All

Desmond King is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford. Contact email:

Hide All
Amenta, E., Caren, N., Chiarello, E. and Su, Y. (2010), ‘The Political Consequences of Social Movements’, Annual Review of Sociology, 36: 287307.
Anderson, C. (2016), White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Order (New York: Bloomsbury).
Berman, A. (2015), Give Us the Ballot (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Bogira, S. (2011), ‘Separate, Unequal and Ignored’, Chicago Reader, 10 February.
Bonastia, C. (2012), Southern Stalemate: Five Years without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Campbell, A.L. (2012), ‘Policy Makes Mass Politics’, Annual Review of Political Science, 15: 333351.
Campbell, M. and Schoenfeld, H. (2013), ‘The Transformation of America’s Penal Order: A Historical Political Sociology of Punishment’, American Journal of Sociology, 118: 13751423.
Charles, C.Z. (2001), ‘Processes of Racial Residential Segregation’, in A. O’Connor, C. Tilly and L.D. Bobo (eds), Urban Inequality: Evidence from Four Cities (New York: Russell Sage Foundation): 217271.
Clayton, J. (2012), ‘Affirmative Action in Action: Overhaul of the Fire Department of New York Hiring Practices’, Observer, 30 October.
Clotfelter, C.T. (2004), After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Coates, T.-N. (2014), ‘The Case for Reparations’, Atlantic Monthly, June.
Coleman, K. (2011), ‘New York City Fire Department to Get Court Monitor in Discrimination Case’, NPR, 7 October,
Davis, G.J. (2015), ‘What Woodrow Wilson Cost My Grandfather’, New York Times, 24 November.
Desmond, M. (2016), Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Crown).
Dimick, J., Ruhter, J., Sarrazin, M.V. and Birkmeyer, J.D. (2013), ‘Black Patients More Likely than Whites to Undergo Surgery at Low-Quality Hospitals in Segregated Regions’, Health Affairs, 32: 10461053.
Dobbin, F. (2009), Inventing Equal Opportunity (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Dudziak, M. (2000), Cold War Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Ellen, I.G. (2007), ‘How Integrated Did We Become during the 1990s?’, in J. Goering (ed.), Fragile Rights within Cities: Government, Housing, and Fairness (Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield): 123–42.
Fields, B.J. (1990), ‘Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America’, New Left Review, 181: 95118.
Fortner, M.J. (2015), Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Francis, M.M. (2014), Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State (New York: Cambridge University Press).
Frymer, P. (2003), ‘Acting When Elected Officials Won’t: Federal Courts and Civil Rights Enforcement in U.S. Labor Unions, 1935–85’, American Political Science Review, 97: 483499.
Frymer, P. (2005), ‘Racism Revised: Courts, Labor Law and the Institutional Construction of Racial Animus’, American Political Science Review, 99: 373387.
Garland, D. (2010), Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition (New York: Oxford University Press).
Gerstle, G. (2015), Liberty and Coercion (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Gillespie, A. (2012), The New Black Politician (New York: New York University Press).
Gillion, D.Q. (2016), Governing with Words: The Political Dialogue on Race, Public Policy and Inequality in America (New York: Cambridge University Press).
Glaeser, E. and Vigdor, J. (2012), ‘The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods 1890–2010’, Manhattan Institute Civic Report 66 (Washington, DC).
Goering, J.M. (1986) (ed.), Housing Desegregation and Federal Policy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).
Gottschalk, M. (2006), The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America (New York: Cambridge University Press).
Gottschalk, M. (2014), Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Greer, C. (2013), Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration and the Pursuit of the American Dream (New York: Oxford University Press).
Harris, F.C. (2012), The Price of the Ticket (New York: Oxford University Press).
Harris, F.C. (2014), ‘Will Ferguson be a Moment or a Movement?’, Washington Post, 22 August.
Hochschild, J. (1999), ‘You Win Some, You Lose Some …: Explaining the Pattern of Success and Failure in the Second Reconstruction’, in M. Keller and R.S. Melnick (eds), Taking Stock: American Government in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press): 4563.
Hutchings, V.L. (2009), ‘Change or More of the Same? Evaluating Racial Attitudes in the Obama Era’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 73: 917942.
Iceland, J., Weinberg, D.H. and Steinmetz, E. (2002), Racial and Ethnic Residential Segregation in the United States: 1980–2000 (Washington DC: US Census Bureau).
Jacobs, L.R. and King, D. (2016), Fed Power: How Finance Wins (New York: Oxford University Press).
Johnson, K.S. (2015), ‘The Color Line and the State: Race and American Political Development’, in R. Valelly, S. Mettler and R. Lieberman (eds), The Oxford Handbook of American Political Development (New York: Oxford University Press): 121158.
Jones, J. and Schmitt, J. (2014), A College Degree is No Guarantee (Washington, DC: Center for Economic and Policy Research).
Kain, J.F. (1986), ‘The Influence of Race and Income on Racial Segregation and Housing Policy’, in J.M. Goering (ed.), Housing Desegregation and Federal Policy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press): 2342.
Kato, D. (2015), Liberalizing Lynching (New York: Oxford University Press).
King, D. (2007), Separate and Unequal: African Americans and the US Federal Government (New York: Oxford University Press).
King, D. and Lieberman, R.C. (2009), ‘Ironies of State Building: Comparative Perspective on the American State’, World Politics, 61: 547588.
King, D. and Smith, R.M. (2011), Still a House Divided (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
King, D. and Smith, R.M. (2014), ‘Without Regard to Race: Critical Ideational Developments in Modern American Politics’, Journal of Politics, 76: 958971.
King, M.L. Jr (1965), ‘Let Justice Roll Down’, The Nation, June.
Lacey, N. and Soskice, D. (2015), ‘Crime, Punishment and Segregation in the United States: The Paradox of Local Democracy’, Punishment and Society, 17: 454481.
Logan, J.R. and Stults, B.J. (2011), ‘The Persistence of Segregation in the Metropolis: New Findings from the 2010 Census’, census brief prepared for Project US2010.
Mazumder, B. (2014), ‘Black-White Differences in Intergovernmental Economic Mobility in the United States’, Economic Perspectives, 1Q: 110.
McAdam, D. (1982), Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930–1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
McAdam, D. (2009), ‘The US Civil Rights Movement: Power from Below and Above, 1945–70’, in A. Roberts and T. Garton Ash (eds), Civil Resistance and Power Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 5874.
McCarty, N. (2015), ‘Polarization and American Political Development’, in R. Valelly, S. Mettler and R. Lieberman (eds), The Oxford Handbook of American Political Development (New York: Oxford University Press): 240260.
Miller, L.L. (2014), ‘The (Dys)Functions of American Federalism’, Tulsa Law Review, 49: 266278.
Miller, L.L. (2016), The Myth of Mob Rule: Violent Crime and Democratic Politics (New York: Oxford University Press).
Morgan, K. and Campbell, A.L. (2012), The Delegated Welfare State (New York: Oxford University Press).
Morris, A.D. (1984), The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Free Press).
Murakawa, N. (2014), The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (New York: Oxford University Press).
National Urban League (2014), One Nation Underemployed: Jobs Rebuild America (Washington, DC: National Urban League).
Parks, R. (1992), My Story (New York: Dial Books).
Patashnik, E.M. and Zelizer, J.E. (2013), ‘The Struggle to Remake Politics: Liberal Reform and the Limits of Policy Feedback in the Contemporary American State’, Perspectives on Politics, 11: 10711087.
Payne, C.M. (2007), I’ve Got the Light of Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Peterson, P. (1981), City Limits (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Pew Research Center (2012), Trends in American Values 1987–2012 (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center), Values Release.pdf.
Pinderhughes, D. (2014) (ed.), Uneven Roads: An Introduction to US Racial and Ethnic Politics (Washington, DC: Sage CQ Press).
Piven, F.F. (2006), Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield).
Price, M. (2016), The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race (New York: New York University Press).
Reardon, S.F. and Bischoff, K. (2011), ‘Growth in Residential Segregation of Families by Income, 1970–2009’, census brief prepared for Project US2010.
Reardon, S.F., Grewal, E.T., Kalogrides, D. and Greenberg, E. (2012), ‘Brown Fades: The End of Court-Ordered School Desegregation and the Resegregation of American Public Schools’, Journal of Public Policy Analysis and Management, 31: 876904.
Reed, A.L. Jr (1986), The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon (New Haven: Yale University Press).
Santora, M. and Schwirtz, M. (2014), ‘City Settles Lawsuit Accusing Fire Dept. of Racial Bias’, New York Times, 19 March.
Schwartzman, P. (2016), ‘Why Some Whites are Waking up to Racism’, Washington Post, 3 August.
Schwirtz, M. (2013), ‘For New York City Fire Department, More Diversity Amid Tension’, New York Times, 4 December.
Shapiro, T.M. (2004), The Hidden Cost of Being African American (New York: Oxford University Press).
Shapiro, T.M., Meschede, T. and Sullivan, L. (2010), ‘The Racial Wealth Gap Increases Fourfold’, brief, Institute on Assets and Social Policy, May.
Shapiro, T., Meschede, T. and Osoro, S. (2013), ‘The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black–White Economic Divide’, brief, Institute on Assets and Social Policy, February.
Sheingate, A. (2009), ‘Why Can’t Americans See the State?’, The Forum, 7: 4.
Spence, L. (2015), Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics (New York: Punctum Books).
Stepan, A. and Linz, J.J. (2011), ‘Comparative Perspectives on Inequality and the Quality of Democracy in the United States’, Perspectives on Politics, 9: 841856.
Stout, C. (2015), Bringing Race Back In: Black Politicians, Deracialization and Voting Behavior in the Age of Obama (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press).
Strolovitch, D.Z. (2013), ‘Of Mancessions and Hecoveries: Race, Gender, and the Political Construction of Economics Crises and Recoveries’, Perspectives on Politics, 11: 167177.
Swarns, R.L. (2015), ‘Minority Sheet Metal Workers in New York Get Back Pay After Decades of Bias,’ New York Times, 20 December.
Tate, K. (1994) (ed.), From Protest to Politics: The New Black Voters in American Elections (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Tate, K. (2003), Black Faces in the Mirror: African Americans and their Representatives in the US Congress (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Tesler, M. (2012), ‘The Spillover of Racialization into Health Care: How President Obama Polarized Public Opinion by Racial Attitudes and Race’, American Journal of Political Science, 56: 690704.
Tesler, M. (2016), Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Theoharis, J. (2013), The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks (Boston, MA: Beacon Press).
Thurston, C. (2015), ‘Policy Feedback in the Public-Private Welfare State: Citizens Advocacy Groups and the Expansion of Access to Government Homeownership Programs’, Studies in American Political Development, 29: 250267.
Tilly, C. and Tarrow, S. (2007), Contentious Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers).
Valelly, R.M. (2004), The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Wright, G. (2013), Sharing the Prize (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Wright Rigueur, L. (2015), The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Adarand Constuctors Inc. v Pena, 515 U.S. 200 (1995).
Alexander v Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001).
Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
City of Richmond v J.A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469 (1989).
Freeman v Pitts, 503 U.S. 467 (1992).
Fullilove v Klutznick, 448 U.S. 448 (1980).
Milliken v Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974).
Regents of the University of California v Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).
Ricci v DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557 (2009).
Shelby County, Alabama v Holder, 570 U.S. 173 (2013).
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Government and Opposition
  • ISSN: 0017-257X
  • EISSN: 1477-7053
  • URL: /core/journals/government-and-opposition
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed