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The State You See

How Government Visibility Creates Political Distrust and Racial Inequality

Subjects: Race and Ethnicity, Political Science, Public Policy, Political Behavior and Public Opinion
Paperback : 9780472055999, 278 pages, 18 figures, 17 tables, 6 x 9, March 2023
Hardcover : 9780472075997, 278 pages, 18 figures, 17 tables, 6 x 9, March 2023
Open Access : 9780472903320, 278 pages, 18 figures, 17 tables, 6 x 9, March 2023
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How race affects Americans' experiences of government

Table of contents

List of Illustrations and Tables
Chapter 1. Introduction: The Submerged State and the Carceral State
Chapter 2. Taxes and Welfare: The Tip of the Iceberg in White America
Chapter 3. Police as the Face of Government: State Visibility Among People of Color
Chapter 4. Visible in All the Wrong Places: Dual Visibility and American Political Distrust
Chapter 5. Invisibility and Membership: How Government Visibility Creates Racially Patterned Political Inequality
Chapter 6. Black Lives Matter: Disrupting the Duality
Chapter 7. The Politics of Visibility and Prospects for Change
Appendix A: Interview Protocol and Post-Interview Survey
Appendix B: Ethnographic Research Details
Appendix C: Interview Information
Appendix D: Dataset Information and Question Wording


The State You See uncovers a racial gap in the way the American government appears in people’s lives. It makes it clear that public policy changes over the last fifty years have driven all Americans to distrust the government that they see in their lives, even though Americans of different races are not seeing the same kind of government.

For white people, these policy changes have involved a rising number of generous benefits submerged within America’s tax code, which taken together cost the government more than Social Security and Medicare combined. Political attention focused on this has helped make welfare and taxes more visible representations of government for white Americans. As a result, white people are left with the misperception that government does nothing for them, apart from take their tax money to spend on welfare. Distrust of government is the result. For people of color, distrust is also rampant but for different reasons. Over the last fifty years, America has witnessed increasingly overbearing policing and swelling incarceration numbers. These changes have disproportionately impacted communities of color, helping to make the criminal legal system a unique visible manifestation of government in these communities.

While distrust of government emerges in both cases, these different roots lead to different consequences. White people are mobilized into politics by their distrust, feeling that they must speak up in order to reclaim their misspent tax dollars. In contrast, people of color are pushed away from government due to a belief that engaging in American elections will yield the same kind of unresponsiveness and violence that comes from interactions with the police. The result is a perpetuation of the same kind of racial inequality that has always been present in American democracy. The State You See is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding how the American government engages in subtle forms of discrimination and how it continues to uphold racial inequality in the present day.

Aaron J. Rosenthal is Senior Research Specialist for the Council on Criminal Justice.

The State You See offers a welcome and timely addition to the growing literature on public policy and political inequality. Rosenthal’s consideration of the racialized feedback effects of multiple policy experiences fills a critical lacuna in our collective understanding of the politics of public policy.”

—Mallory E. SoRelle, Duke University

- Mallory E. SoRelle

“In The State You See (TSYS) Rosenthal argues that policy in the post-civil rights era has developed such that it is unequally visible to White and Black Americans, and this inequality in turn leads to different responses to declining trust in public institutions. Rosenthal’s book takes up the important task of integrating well known but disparate findings around criminal justice system, public welfare provision, and racial and ethnic politics into a unified theory of racialized policy feedbacks. The State You See represents a major step forward in the study of political learning, and the capacity for the state to shape citizens’ attitudes and behaviors.”

—Hannah Walker, University of Texas at Austin

- Hannah Walker

"By bridging multiple fields of study and literatures within those fields, The State You See unifies previously disjointed findings in a way that furthers our understanding of how public policy shapes attitudes, behavior, and trust in government. The State You See makes an immense contribution to literatures in political science, public policy, and criminal justice."
--Perspectives on Politics

- Perspectives on Politics

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Read: Author Q&A | March 14, 2023