The Color of Neoliberalism: The “Modern Southern Businessman” and Postwar Alabama's Challenge to Racial Desegregation1

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Abstract

Prior research on the origins and diffusion of the neoliberal project have emphasized the role of elite economists, yet no explanations have been provided as to why neoliberal reforms were attractive to the broader U.S. population. To fill this gap in the literature, this article focuses on the voluntary sector struggles against desegregation and corporate taxation in postwar Alabama. I examine the emergence of a language of privatization that degraded all things public as “black” and inferior and all things private as “white” and superior, which provided the pretext to attract national white support for the neoliberal turn. Empirically, the article focuses on the construction of the modern southern businessman that emerged from struggles to economically modernize the South, and the construction of a publicly financed private school system that emerged from the struggles to fight school desegregation. These two struggles fused under the George Wallace political umbrella, whose regional and national political career diffused the racial language from its origins in 1950s Alabama to the national level in the 1960s and early 1970s.

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