A racial undercurrent
A racial undercurrent
Prior to the advent of the civil rights movement in the middle of the 20th century, overt racial discrimination was quite tolerable in America. In the old confederacy there were segregated public drinking fountains, racially separate schools, restaurants and theaters, and blacks had to sit in the back of the bus.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade informed Americans that bigotry was morally repugnant. As a result, public displays of racial discrimination became socially unacceptable and sometimes illegal. Bigotry had to go underground, to resurface only on special occasions.
This change in social etiquette has created a difficulty for conservative candidates for president. Racial slurs might fire up the bigoted base but they would undoubtedly offend political independents. So it has been necessary to develop a code that would be understood by conservative voters but would also protect candidates from accusations of bigotry.
The traditional surrogate concept has been poverty. Reports about poverty in America have so frequently focused on blacks that the beneficiaries of entitlements are almost automatically considered to be blacks. Consequently, when Newt Gingrich castigates President Barack Obama as the food stamp president, his criticism contains implicit racial antagonism.
Juan Williams, a black journalist and a panelist in a South Carolina debate, stated that Gingrich’s food stamp remarks might sound to some people “as if you are seeking to belittle people.” Gingrich’s forceful response was well received by the audience. The next day a supporter congratulated Gingrich for putting that Juan Williams “in his place.”
When campaigning in Iowa, Rick Santorum was even more direct. He said, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” This statement is consistent with the conservative opposition to assessing taxes at a rate high enough to finance benefits for those with modest incomes. However, all Americans, not just blacks, are eligible for entitlements.
Since the recent recession and the rise in unemployment there has been an increase in so-called food stamps going to white families. According to reports, Idaho, with an 81 percent white population, had one of the greatest increases in food stamps in 2010. The black population is less than 1 percent. And Oregon, with a 1.8 percent black population had the highest participation in the food stamp program and 74 percent of the families enrolled were white.
An insensitive epithet to insult African Americans has inadvertently ensnared countless white families trapped in the throes of the recession. Conservatives persistently demonstrate their disdain for the less affluent. As the income disparity continues in this country, perhaps many working class whites will begin to reconsider the best political affiliation to represent their interests. For them the issue of economic class should be more important than race.
Nonetheless, it might be difficult for many working class whites to be immune from the affliction of racial discrimination. Santorum could not. The day after he made the racial remark in Iowa he was asked why he singled out blacks. He denied having made the remark. Americans were left to decide whether he was lying or whether his statement about blacks was an automatic reflex.
As an experienced campaigner, it is unlikely that Santorum would have consciously said such a thing. He was undoubtedly reacting subconsciously. Blacks should be acutely aware of the undercurrent of racial bigotry that is hard wired into some Americans, despite the appearance of racial tolerance.