That didn’t take long.
As we’ve gotten around to casting votes to select a Republican presidential nominee, the antiblack rhetoric has taken center stage.
You just have to love (and despise) this kind of predictability.
On Sunday, Rick “The Rooster” Santorum, campaigning in Iowa, said what sounded like “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” At first, he offered a nondenial that suggested that the comment might have been out of context. Now he’s saying that he didn’t say “black people” at all but that he “started to say a word” and then “sort of mumbled it and changed my thought.”
(Pause as I look askance and hum an incredulous, “Uh huh.”)
Newton Leroy Gingrich has been calling President Obama “the best food stamp president” for months, but after plummeting in the polls and finishing fourth in Iowa, he must have decided that this approach was too subtle. So, on Thursday in New Hampshire, he sharpened the shiv and dug it in deeper, saying, “I’m prepared, if the N.A.A.C.P. invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” On Friday, Gingrich defended himself, as usual, by insisting that exactly what he said wasn’t exactly what he said. He was advocating for African-Americans, not disparaging them.
The comments from Santorum and Gingrich came after a renewed exploration of Ron Paul’s controversial newsletters, one of which said in June 1992 about the Los Angeles riots: “Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began.”
First, some facts. Take the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly known as food stamps. PolitiFact has rated Gingrich’s “food stamp president” charge as only half-true. Yes, participation in the program is at a record high, but Bush-era efforts to increase participation and broaden the program “produced consistent increases in the number of average monthly beneficiaries. The number rose in seven out of the eight years of Bush’s presidency — most of which were years not considered recessionary. All told, the number of recipients rose by a cumulative 63 percent during Bush’s eight-year presidency.”
Now to the singling out of blacks. The largest group of SNAP beneficiaries is by far non-Hispanic whites. However, it is true that the rate of participation is much higher among blacks than whites. Put the emphasis where you wish.
Finally, as to the false dichotomy of “food stamps” versus “paychecks.” First, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, most SNAP participants are either too old or too young to work. Forty-seven percent were under age 18, and 8 percent were 60 or older. Second, “nearly 30 percent of SNAP households had earnings in 2010, and 41 percent of all SNAP participants lived in a household with earnings.”
But race is usually less about facts than historical mythology, which evokes the black bogyman, who saps the money from the whites who earn it. Ever since blacks first arrived on these shores in chains, they have been perceived as lazy and dependent on whites — first as slaves, and then as “entitled” citizens.
It is the Shackles-to-Bootstraps Doctrine of Self-Defeat that disavows any and all structural inhibitors to success.
The preface of the “Encyclopedia of Black Folklore and Humor” tells a story about the first black captives arriving in the New World and one slave “muttering angrily to himself.” The captain of the boat says to him, “What’s the matter with you? You’ve been in this country for only five minutes and already you’re complaining!”
Folklore or fact, this is the way many have viewed blacks in this country throughout history and even now: with scolding disdain and shocking blindness.
In 1935, W.E.B. DuBois’s “Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880” pointed out that one of the major themes that American children were being taught in textbooks about that period was that “all Negroes were lazy, dishonest and extravagant.”
The themes are eerily resonant of today’s Republican talking points on welfare.
One textbook theme excerpted by DuBois stated that “legislatures were often at the mercy of Negroes, childishly ignorant, who sold their votes openly, and whose ‘loyalty’ was gained by allowing them to eat, drink and clothe themselves at the state’s expense.”
Another stated that “assistance led many freed men to believe that they need no longer work.”
This tired trope was reprised in 1976. After losing the Iowa caucus to Gerald Ford and heading into the New Hampshire primary, Ronald Reagan glommed onto the idea of the “welfare queen.”
Reagan explained at nearly every stop that there was a woman in Chicago who “has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”
Coincidence? “Uh huh.”
Racial politics play well for Republicans. Santorum and Paul finished second and third in Iowa. Time will tell if Gingrich rebounds. Playing to racial anxiety and fear isn’t a fluke; it’s a strategy that energizes the Republican base.
Kevin Phillips, who popularized the right’s “Southern Strategy,” was quoted in The New York Times Magazine in May 1970 as saying that “the more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans.”