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Jeb Bush’s Big Lie About “Free Stuff”

Lee A. Daniels

Remember when the conventional wisdom was that Jeb Bush was “the smart one” of the Bush brothers? And that he, the anointed front-runner of the GOP presidential-contender field, would smoothly steamroller his competitors on the way to 2016?

Well, the political outsiders Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have all crashed the GOP establishment’s big dance, turning those predictions into jokes and thus far pushing Bush down to the single digits in the polls.

Jeb may still get the brass ring; he does have a huge campaign war chest. But so far, in his stumbling about the campaign trail, he’s shown he’s got that singular Bush family trait: making the “gaffe” that reveals his true feelings.

The most recent was his astonishingly inept “stuff happens” response to the nation’s latest mass killing, the slaughter at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College.

One can acknowledge that, of course, Bush wasn’t ignoring the fact that lives were lost—and still condemn him for his clumsy rationalization for not supporting any sort of meaningful gun-control legislation. Doing so even as these tragedies have become “routine” underscores how rotten that plank of conservative orthodoxy is.

The previous week, however, Bush fully deserved the condemnation he drew for a truly despicable remark that, in fact, revealed his —and his party’s — decades-long callousness toward black Americans.

Speaking at a South Carolina campaign event, Bush said in response to a question about his appealing to black voters: “Our message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff. Our message is one that is uplifting — that says you can achieve earned success.”

In other words, Jeb Bush believes blacks vote Democratic not because they believe supporting the party both serves their own interests and promotes their view of what American society should be, but because they’re stupid, selfish and corrupt.

In repeating the charge the defeated Mitt Romney had made after he lost the 2012 election to President Obama, Bush demonstrated how important the notion that blacks want something for nothing is to people Republican Party politics.

But the importance of Bush’s remark — revealing an attitude that’s been a hallmark of white-racist belief since the Reconstruction era — goes even deeper because it’s the latest example of a powerful dynamic of American life: the continual dead-ending of black respectability politics.

Put simply, black respectability politics is just another name for the old cardinal command to all black Americans striving for achievement to behave as if they represent the entire mass of African Americans — because they do.

But, as Barack Obama’s tenure as the nation’s first black president has underscored, there’s a multi-layered trick to that white-racism-imposed burden that quickly limits the value of being “a credit to your race.” For one thing, racism in many individuals has always been impervious to facts and logic. Secondly, some whites have always practiced a “pragmatic racism” or situational race baiting for the financial, political, or social advantage they think they’ll gain from it.

Of course, one purpose of the conservative Big Lie Jeb Bush repeated is to obscure that getting “free stuff” from the government has always been the foundation of the superior status whites have enjoyed in American society: Indeed, tax plans proposed by Bush and the other Republican candidates would continue the conservative orthodoxy of funneling “free stuff” in the form of outrageous tax cuts and tax deductions to the wealthiest—which means, of course, the whitest — bloc of Americans.

And a second purpose of that Bush/conservative view is to bury the record of “smart politics” black voters began to play with greater intensity following passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. One can draw a straight line from that landmark act to the massive black voter turnout that buoyed President Obama’s two election victories.

In other words, Jeb Bush’s Big Lie shows why black respectability politics periodically reaches a dead end. It’s because white respectability politics—that is, the force of white tolerance—periodically loses steam in its struggle against white bigotry. That’s really what the 2016 campaign is all about: Will the tradition of exclusion, alive and tawdry as ever in the Republican Party, succeed in stifling the claims of Americans of color, gays and lesbians and white women as well as blacks for the full measure of their citizenship rights?

Lee A. Daniels is a columnist for the National Newspaper Publishers Association. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com.