Tag Archives: dog whistle racism

When Welfare Was White: What The Fight Over the Safety Net Is Really All About

8 Oct

Much has been written about the fight over the social safety net. Many say that Newt Gingrich calling President Obama the “food stamps president,” and Mitt Romney lying about the President dropping the work requirement in welfare is dog whistle racism meant to gin up a base they’ve spent 50 years building with racist appeals to civil rights backlash.

I agree. But I also think there’s something missing from that argument. We have, it seems to me, become so focused on trying to demonize conservatives as racists that we are missing just how fundamental racism has always been to the structure of the welfare state and, what’s more, what all the fuss over means-based government entitlements is really all about.

In order to understand what’s at the base of all of this fighting, one need only remember back to when welfare was white.

Gary Delgado and Rebecca Gordon write in From Poverty to Punishment: How Welfare Reform Punishes the Poor,

At first, welfare was based on a specific, if unarticulated, ideology of gender roles and race. Its framers expected that white women’s primary responsibility would be child rearing and unpaid domestic labor, while white men would engage in paid labor as their families’ “breadwinners.” Based on this division of labor with the family, paid work was expected to provide a “breadwinner wage” – a wage that would support the paid worker, his wife, and their children. With the introduction of welfare, the government assumed financial responsibility when no other breadwinner was available. White widows were cast as “deserving damsels in distress.”

Aid to Families with Dependent Children(AFDC), what we think of as welfare, was introduced as part of the Social Security Act of 1935, which also provided social security and unemployment insurance. At its inception, AFDC didn’t anticipate the participation of women of color, especially Black women. The intent of the program was to keep white women out of the workforce so they could fulfill their role as mothers.

Whites didn’t consider the value of Black women to their own families, but instead focused on their value to the white-owned businesses and white households that employed them. Black women were expected to work, and in highly exploitative jobs that few whites would ever take. And welfare was designed to avoid interfering with their availability as workers. This is why some welfare offices in the South stopped providing aid to Black families during cotton picking season.

In subsequent generations, as people of color won access to welfare, the program changed, as did our ideas about welfare recipients. The political debate shifted from how to provide for the needy as a way of serving the common good, to how to control the deviant behaviors of recipients who were cast as lazy, dishonest, promiscuous moochers. The sentiment driving the post-integration discussion of welfare can be summed up the by the title of the act that reformed welfare under Clinton: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. That Act assumes that recipients are alienated from work because of their dependency on welfare, rather than because they are denied all but the most onerous, low-paid and humiliating work. To reconcile them to work, time limits and penalties were imposed on recipients to push them into the workforce. But the workforce isn’t where many former recipients end up. Instead they lose their benefits without finding work.

So let’s get it straight. The fight over who does and doesn’t deserve welfare is a fight about race and always has been. In fact, it has roots that stretch all the way back to the days of convict leasing which, after all, was not completely abolished until 1948, 13 years after welfare went national.  It is also very important to recognize the profound and vicious sexism that informs the paternalistic attitude shaping welfare policy, allowing us to talk about recipients but not with them, as though they have nothing to offer to the debate.

But, maybe most importantly, while racism has been used as a weapon to attack welfare, the fight isn’t just about race.

The real fight over welfare is over workers and wages. And while the fight over workers and wages cannot be separated from our history of slavery, coolie labor, and manipulation of immigration policy to maintain a pool of highly exploitable immigrant labor, race isn’t the only thing driving the dynamic.

This is why providing benefits to white widows who would otherwise be housewives was relatively noncontroversial. But when welfare became a program that interfered with the super-exploitation of Black women, all that changed.

That’s why conservatives are so obsessed with welfare when there are so many other areas of spending that are less popular and doing so much more to drive up the deficit. A robust social safety net drives up wages, just as the threat of poverty and unemployment drives wages down. The more vulnerable we are, the more desperate we become. That, to me, is what all the fuss is about.

Whitewashing History at the Democratic National Convention

18 Sep

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines the word whitewash as,

to gloss over or cover up (as vices or crimes), or

to exonerate by means of a perfunctory investigation or through biased presentation of data.  

I got to thinking about whitewash, and whitewashing history in particular, during the Democratic National Convention. At the convention, a whole lot of whitewash was slopped around.
But what got me writing was the recent news of a bump in the polls for U.S. Senate candidate, Elizabeth Warren. That bump is being attributed to her speech at that convention, and I remembered that speech as very good example of how politicians whitewash history in order to win political points with white voters.
Now, I’m not trying to pick a fight with Elizabeth Warren. She’s no worse, and probably a lot better, than most politicians of both major parties. But consider what she said –
I’m here tonight to talk about hard-working people: people who get up early, stay up late, cook dinner and help out with homework; people who can be counted on to help their kids, their parents, their neighbors, and the lady down the street whose car broke down; people who work their hearts out but are up against a hard truth—the game is rigged against them. It wasn’t always this way….

…I grew up in an America that invested in its kids and built a strong middle class; that allowed millions of children to rise from poverty and establish secure lives. An America that created Social Security and Medicare so that seniors could live with dignity; an America in which each generation built something solid so that the next generation could build something better..

You and I both know that not everyone was able to participate equally in those programs and opportunities. But to hear Warren and other leaders of both parties talk about this rose colored past, approximately the period from 1934 to the mid 1960s, you’d think fairness was the cardinal American value of the time.

But of course they do know better. Elizabeth Warren was born in 1949. That means she was about 16 years old when Jim Crow laws were finally defeated.

Jim Crow laws, for those unfamiliar, started being established just 11 years after the end of the Civil War. They were created for the purpose of upholding white supremacy and, following the logic of slavery, ensuring a ready pool of Black workers who were cheap to hire because they were denied access to government assistance and unprotected by the law.

Elizabeth Warren was also born in Oklahoma, a state that kept its public schools segregated until 1955, when Warren would have been about 6.

Oklahoma was also the final destination for Native Americans subject to forced relocation as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The path by which Native Americans were forced to relocate is known as the Trail of Tears, in part because so many died along the way, including 4,000 members of the Cherokee Nation, a group I assume Warren knows something about.

The game, as Warren refers to it, was always rigged, and to the advantage of white people, especially white men. The great middle class she speaks of is largely a white phenomena, created in part via benefits of the GI Bill, a program that helped provide educations and home ownership opportunities to veterans, but that discriminated against some veterans by race.

Home ownership was a great boon to the white middle class, but even those GIs of color who were able to get mortgage assistance through the Bill faced red lining and restrictive covenants that limited opportunities to buy homes to the poorest neighborhoods. Education is a key to social mobility, but educational opportunity was denied to many vets of color, in spite of their service, and those that did go to school were often forced into separate and unequal institutions.

Social programs like Mothers’ Aid, established in the 1930s (and that eventually evolved into welfare as we now know it) helped many poor women and children rise out of poverty. But many women of color, especially in the South, were denied benefits under this program and its later iterations because they were considered valuable only as workers, not as mothers.

And these are just a few examples. The legacy of racial exclusion from these opportunities continues to this day. It’s time for those of us left out of this grand history of America to speak up. If we don’t, we may in fact return to that whitewashed past.

Harkening Back to a Whiter Time

5 Sep

On MSNBC’s Up this weekend, host Chris Hayes went after the Republican strategy of using nostalgia to rev up their base. He claimed that a reason conservatives long for the past is that, back then, (white) social mobility, the basis of the American dream, was more possible. He went on to feature a robust discussion of the role of race in this messaging strategy, but all tempered by the sense of some panelists that one ought not go too far in crying racism.

I could not disagree with that sentiment more. Republicans are, in fact, manipulating racism, and when leaders use calls to racism for political gain, history tells us, very bad things follow. White racism is just too much a staple of American culture to ignore that possibility.

I know that kind of talk makes white folks, especially liberal white folks, uncomfortable, but it is the centrality of racism to white identity in America that is the basis of the success of the Republican strategy. So I’m calling it out. White identity in America is rooted in racism. Republicans know it and are manipulating it, while Dems and liberals are saying only as much about it as is politically correct in an election year.

Some History

Since the days of slavery,  privileges have been attached to whiteness at every level of society as an insurance policy on the wealth and power of everyone from Plantation oligarchs to Henry Ford. By extending those privileges to all whites, including access to Indian land, they gave whiteness a pecuniary (according to Webster, consisting of or measured in money) value, even for the least privileged whites.

Because of the pecuniary value of whiteness, before the fall of Jim Crow, you couldn’t sue someone for claiming you were White. But you sure could sue if someone claimed you were Black. Being found out as Black could cost you money, not to mention privileges beyond price like your life, as evidenced by the number of Blacks who were lynched for trying to pass.

Slavery may not have made the vast majority of whites rich, but neither did they suffer the exploitation of field workers (nor of the industrial workers who would eventually take their place as the dominant sector of the workforce after abolition). Over time, entitlement to white privilege became a staple of white identity. Makes sense since white identity was invented as a justification for racism.

Why It Matters Now

Since then, the pecuniary value of whiteness has eroded, or at least changed. For instance, whiteness now is more about what you don’t have to suffer than it is about what you will materially receive to the exclusion of others. So, whiteness in the war on drugs functions like a get-out-of-jail-free card. That’s worth money, but it’s not land in Indian territory. This change makes the value of whiteness less tangible and therefore even less apparent to those who have it. For this reason, sensitivity to and resentment over the perceived erosion in the value of white skin is also a staple of white identity.

The biggest drop in value since the abolition of slavery occurred as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. Though the movement didn’t win equality, it definitely put a ding in the value of whiteness.

The resentment of whites over that sudden loss of status and value is the basis of the Republican’s Southern Strategy. By equating the rise of African Americans and other people of color with a loss of white status, privilege, and control, and then associating that, in turn, with the erosion, especially since the ’70s, of the white middle class, they’ve managed to pull off something like a miracle. They’ve made a political party that for most of the 20th century was branded the party of rich, callous snobs, into the party of the ordinary white man (and woman).

That change, along with the fact that the vast majority of the real political and economic rewards of white supremacy continues to accrue to those on top, have white folks in revolt. Entitlement to white privilege is still a foundation of white identity, and the fact that white privilege isn’t producing for them in the way it used to, and at at time when wealth is piling up as never before, is the reason they’re so pissed off at people of color, especially Black people, and more so by the day.

And that anger, a byproduct of white supremacy, is a basis of the rise of Republicans. And because the GOP is the lever by which rich people are changing the economic rules to make themselves richer than ever, racism still pays off, and big. Never since the antebellum South have we seen anything resembling the global disparities in wealth we see today.

And they’re not done yet. If they’re successful, our own economy may end up looking quite a bit like the plantations of the old South, with rich incompetents at the top (a point made very well in Chris Hayes’ book, Twilight of the Elites, and under-development and poverty all around.

We need to expose white people to their own truth to stop that from happening. Down-playing racism is not going to get that done for us.

The Othering of Barack Obama and the Growing of a Movement

26 Jul

Liberal political reporting regarding the Republican’s campaign strategy of exploiting racism to defeat Barack Obama is giving me a serious headache.

I’m sure you’ve heard the rhetoric. Romney’s now said that the Obama philosophy is foreign (which is equated with dangerous). His campaign surrogate John Sununu went further, saying that President Obama needs to “learn how to be an American.”

Liberal news makers are calling this what it is – pandering to racism. But by reducing this kind of pandering to a campaign issue (as if the cure for the racism that makes it effective would be to re-elect Obama), reporters and pundits are trivializing its consequences.

The Republicans’ use of coded racism needs to be seen in the broader context of racist politicking and our particular moment in history.

For instance, we ought to consider rising, hyper-reactionary Islamophobia and the Bush (and now Obama) war on terror. Widespread fear of Islam is driving the growth of a repressive national security state and war machine that is coming at us from the top-down, while simultaneously inspiring a jihadist racism among conservative Christians from the bottom-up.

And, then there’s racist anti-immigrant politicking more generally. That’s a top-down and bottom-up phenomena, too. Conservative politicians scapegoat immigrants for our economic problems, promoting racism and distracting us from the real causes of our woes. Meanwhile, their racist rhetoric is contributing to the rise of a xenophobic worldview at the community level that is contributing to a rapid rise in vigilante white supremacist groups, as evidenced by the SPLC’s report that white nationalist Patriot groups have experienced an almost ten-fold increase since 2008.

Coded racist attacks on public assistance programs and so-called entitlement junkies are causing an uptick in racism as well. These attacks suggest that we, and especially Blacks, have become too dependent on economy wrecking public assistance programs. Some even double-down on this argument, suggesting that this dependency is being fostered on purpose. In this scenario, capitalism-hating left-wingers are promoting programs that get the poor hooked on socialism.

And then there’s a rise in model minority stereotyping of Asian Americans. This rise in stereotyping that suggests that the quality of life and financial success of Asian Americans is rising while the rest of the country is in decline. To make matters worse, this is happening at the same time as we are seeing a rise in Asia bashing, especially targeting China and India.

Finally, in this by no means exhaustive list, there’s the generalized anxiety among whites concerning the changing U.S. demographic. As we tilt toward 2042, when the U.S. is predicted to become a majority people of color nation, conservative white folks are reacting in a way that builds upon the angry-white-man reaction to African American civil rights gains.

And all of this at a time when folks of all races, and especially middle class white folks who believe themselves to be entitled to better, are righteously angry over our terrible economic and political situation.

In this context, the Romney/Republican attack matters because it is the most visible and well-financed effort to use racism to organize white middle class anger for political gain. These aren’t marginal right wingers, but they are using what started out as marginal right wing arguments and, by doing so, legitimizing them and the radical right wing forces who are attempting to use them to build a potentially violent racist movement.

It’s time for racial justice advocates to step up our game.

I won’t pretend to know the right strategies for every community, but I will suggest that Asian American civil rights groups are particularly well positioned to speak out and be heard on this issue. Asian Americans can draw upon our own experiences of exclusion and internment to put contemporary efforts to label people of color as foreign, dangerous, and disloyal in the context of our own long history of persecution.

Dog Whistle Racism

9 Apr

Liberal pundits are buzzing over Mitt Romney’s latest strategy of playing the old, “I know you are, but what am I?” game. In response to criticism that he’s too out of touch, not to mention odd, to relate to working class voters, Romney is accusing President Obama of being “out of touch.

Romney has even gone so far as to suggest that the President spent too many years (three) at Harvard, Romney’s own alma mater (which, BTW, he attended for four years), sharpening the point being made by other Republican candidates in the race that Obama is a privileged outsider.

The liberal pundits are going after Romney hook and nail. After all, Romney is the son of a man who was the President of American Motors and Governor of Michigan.  Following in his father’s footsteps, Romney made a career as a businessman that has made him one of the super rich, and then became the Governor of Massachusetts. One could grow up on Fantasy Island and be less out of touch than Mitt Romney.

Romney’s wife Ann, who many say is the “better Romney,” recently had this to say about their wealth: “…I don’t even consider myself wealthy, which is an interesting thing, it can be here today and gone tomorrow.”

That not just odd, that’s downright callous. Moreover, it seems reckless. Why in the hell is Romney making himself  out to be so out of touch he doesn’t even know what it means to be out of touch?

Many pundits have suggested that he is following the Karl Rove strategy of taking your own greatest weakness and turning it against your political opponent. Probably the most famous example of this strategy at play was George W. Bush’s success in blunting the strength of John Kerry’s heroic war record as an exaggeration, when Bush himself had famously hid out in a cushy job in the reserves. By doing so, Bush took away a key strength of Kerry’s campaign strategy and turned it into a weakness.

I’m sure deflection is part of the game being played here, but I have a suspicion we’re witnessing dog whistle racism. Dog whistle racism is when folks use coded messages meant to trigger a racist reaction among those trained to recognize them without using explicit racist language. Kinda like dogs can be trained to respond to whistles only they can hear.

Consider the audience Romney is appealing to in this primary race. The Republican base is overwhelmingly white and has been subjected to coded and not so coded racist messaging for decades. They are conditioned to hear the cues and react.

Among the cues is the notion that educated and successful African Americans are all or nearly all beneficiaries of Affirmative Action. And to race-sensitive whites, Affirmative Action is all about denying opportunities to white people in order to bestow exclusive privileges on people of color, especially Black people.

And consider this: according to a March 2012 Pubic Policy Polling survey of Republican primary voters, only 33% of those polled in Tennessee think Barack Obama was born in the U.S. compared to 45% who don’t. 40% of Georgia primary voters think Obama was born in the U.S., and 38% don’t. In Ohio, 42% think Obama was born here, while 37% do not.  Nationally, 77% of Republican voters approve of interracial marriage compared with 88% of Democrats and 89% of Independents.

So why is Romney, who has had a very difficult time relating to the Republican right wing base, saying that the President is “out of touch,” elite and privileged? It’s not too far a stretch to suggest he may be exploiting racism in the Republican base and basically saying, I know you don’t like me, but that guy, he’s not one of us. And if you look at the overall Romney campaign message, Obama is not just out of touch, he’s dangerous.

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