Notes | The Austerity Politics of White Supremacy

Posted on Nov 1, 2022

Source: Dissent Magazine | Author: Vanessa Williamson | Date: Winter 2021


Vanessa Williamson’s article traces the identity of the taxpayer from the Reconstruction South to the present day. Due to suffrage, anti-Reconstruction operators knew that they would not be able to achieve political wins democratically, so they changed tactics and focused on growing their base by pearl clutching about debts and deficits.

The Southern ‘Redeemers’, who often had direct connections to the KKK, re-branded themselves as representatives of the taxpayers – an effort to eschew ties to slavery and racism.

She notes that poor whites weren’t readily convinced by calls to racism, and the ruling class changed their strategy to focus on taxpayers and landowners. The Redeemers even claimed that they welcomed all landholders, which for obvious reasons excluded most Black Americans.

Redeemer governments slashed public budgets and shifted taxes to the poor. They justified this by complaining of outsize spending, and would compare pre-war and post-war spending and note that the latter was higher. Much like today, this rhetoric was not done in good faith. A war had just happened, infrastructure needed to be repaired and the population doubled. In no world would government spending be less, but what matter is that Southern Redeemers now had a story they could sell to Northerners.

Over time, Northerners started to rethink defending universal male suffrage because it empowered the immigrant class within their cities. Fears of the Paris Commune loomed among the Northern Elite, they feared being ruled by an ‘incompetent poor’ with the state of New York even endeavoring to limit suffrage.

Right-wing extremism is on the rise and the taxpayer identity wreaks havoc on our politics to this day. Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Queen was a fabrication, and Reagan would lie and make up figures at rallies. The numbers were always different, but always large enough to stoke outrage.

In 2014, half of Republicans agreed that only taxpayers should be allowed to vote. How Republicans define taxpayer is not stated in the article, but it is likely the Republicans mean income taxes and not other taxes that people pay. Looking at a landscape where politicians are seeking to limit voting access, it is clear that ideology and motivations remain the same.

Williamson’s piece provides a useful lesson about how the political identity of the taxpayer was born in response to black freedom, and how this taxpayer identity haunts our political landscape today.


Dissent Magazine. “The Austerity Politics of White Supremacy.” Accessed November 1, 2022.…

Further Reading

The Vicksburg Massacre

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