“Never tell anyone,” my mother hissed, “that we’re on welfare!” I sputtered, “Okay.” She let go, angrily. People shuffled to the window where a tired man scanned their papers. That was 1982. Passing a poster of President Ronald Reagan, she shot him the middle finger. Later, I realized he’d risen to power by branding women like her “welfare queens.”
In late 2017, Donald Trump smiled as the GOP passed its Tax Cuts and Jobs Bill. The Republicans want to slash Medicaid, food stamps and welfare. The deficit their tax bill created will be used to justify that. Yet, why attack the needy? In American conservativism, the internal enemy of the nation is the idle poor — specifically, the poor of color.
Republicans talk of prosperity, dignity and self-reliance. Peel back the rhetoric, and racism boils underneath. Tax cuts and calls to end welfare are dog whistles for white supremacy. The real effect of their policies is that people will suffer and thousands will die as they fall through gaping holes in the safety net.
Every day, I see homeless people ask for money. Every. Day. On the street or lurching in a train, they shake cups for loose coins. Most of us look away. A few give wrinkled bills. Many wince with disgust — mostly, I think, because we’re afraid of becoming them. We already live such precarious lives.
How do we justify poverty in a land of abundance? The U.S. is the wealthiest nation in history. The annual federal budget is nearly $3.5 trillion. All of us pour into it. Our paychecks are slivered. Corporations cough up cash. Even undocumented workers pay taxes. Yet, out of 326 million people, 43.1 million live in poverty.
In the Deep South, Midwestern Rust Belt towns and public housing all over the nation, people cling to food stamps and Medicaid. These needed programs lie on the Republican chopping block. President Trump has pushed drug testing for food stamps and work requirements for Medicaid. Rep. Paul Ryan wants to cut Social Security and Medicare.
Again, why attack the most vulnerable? Maybe it’s because the poor vote less. When they do, they vote for Democrats. Maybe it’s because Republicans — like all of us — don’t see just with their eyes, but also with their ideology.
The GOP is led by a business elite that does not have a natural base. Since the 1970s, it has allied with Christian evangelicals, jingoists and racists to ride reactionary movements to power. It fuses our class and racial hierarchies to cut off interracial, working-class solidarity. It is kept going by feeding its voting base with political “red meat” via Fox News and other right-wing outlets, which channel resentment at immigrants, the poor and especially, the poor of color.
The GOP employs a Manichean ideology with two poles, opposed but bound together. On one end, there is the “job creator,” who comes off like Hercules in a business suit. He is smart, decisive and a straight, white male. “I will be the greatest job producer that God ever created,” Trump promised. He is exhibit one on how privilege warps self-image. In a Mar-a-Lago portrait he commissioned, our president looks like Alexander the Great crossed with Fabio.
On the other end, conservatives see the poor as expecting handouts for nothing. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) recently said, “I have a rough time wanting to spend … trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves … and expect the federal government to do everything.” He was followed by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who wanted to repeal the estate tax because the rich invest, unlike the poor who “are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”
The modern GOP thinks the poor are parasites, an idea inherited from older conservatives, schooled in social Darwinism and eugenics. It is deeply familiar. I’ve known this rhetoric my whole life because it was aimed at me.
When Nonwhite Means Non-Human
“Blacks are lazy.” “Blacks complain.” “Blacks always want a handout.” I heard it all before and hated it. My mom came home, bone-tired from work. My aunts, uncles and friends were wrung dry from work. I was always told to work “twice as hard.” We were running from a stereotype: the “parasite coon.”
Racism bends vision into preset images. The underlying spectrum is from fully human whites to animalistic nonwhites. At the bottom, in the right-wing worldview, Africans are still framed as monkeys: bestial, lustful and stupid.
The white racial imagination changes with the level of control over Black people. In the Antebellum era, the Southern planter class promoted the docile Black as proof of slavery’s beneficence. “Mammy” happily served her master. “Uncle Tom” happily served his master. “Sambo” did too. They were portrayed as pets, kept by a superior race.
After the smoke of the Civil War cleared, the white racial imagination, fueled by fear of free Black people, created more menacing imagery. The rapist, Black male brute was a threat. The wanton Black Jezebel was a threat. The “coon” was a sambo gone bad; he was lazy, cynical and mean.
“Bad” Black images rose with white fear. The Black Codes were written with the pen of white panic. The Ku Klux Klan rode at night to kill freedmen and reclaim the land. As the Radical Republicans sent troops to guard Black voting rights, property and bodies, former Confederates hated federal soldiers for forcing racial equality. “States’ rights” transformed into a call to arms for white supremacy.
In 1877, a deal to resolve the disputed presidential election of 1876 ended Reconstruction. Federal troops left the South. White militias killed, raped and beat Black people who tried to vote. Southern “Redemption” had begun — a political cycle of Black freedom confronted by white backlash. It used “bad” Black imagery like the Brute or Parasite Coon. It was violent. It spoke the language of states’ rights and small government.
D.W. Griffith romanticized this terror in the 1915 film Birth of a Nation. In it, Gus, a Black federal soldier — a brute — tries to rape a white woman. In the state-house scene, Black elected officials put their dirty feet on desks; they eat chicken, drink, fight and act loutish. They were “coons” in power. The white audience cheered the Ku Klux Klan chasing them out to “redeem” the white man’s country.
I saw Birth of a Nation in a college film course, and, watching it, my chest tightened. Here was the myth that lay in the heart of the U.S. Here were the characters that racists saw when they looked at me, my family and friends.
Beware of the Dog Whistle
It is an iconic photo. I always wonder at it. In 1957, soldiers guarded nine Black teens walking to school in Little Rock, Arkansas. White Southerners spat slurs as if the civil-rights movement were a second Reconstruction. Eighty years after Northern occupation, federal troops were back in an attempt to force at least a semblance of Black equality.
Today, a memorial stands to the Little Rock Nine at the Arkansas state capitol. When they integrated the school, each step inside was a literal and symbolic trampling of open racism. Alongside African-Americans’ legal victories was a cultural one: White supremacy, if not defeated, was somewhat delegitimized.
When the white backlash came, politicians could no longer speak in bald racism. Republicans, who were rebounding after decades of New Deal Democratic dominance, used a “Southern strategy” to corral racist Democrats. It cleaned up bigotry with euphemism.
Lee Atwater, a political strategist for Reagan and George H.W. Bush, spelled out the mechanics. “You start out in 1954 by saying, nigger, nigger, nigger,” he breezily instructed. “By 1968 you can’t say nigger. So, you say forced busing, states’ rights. You’re getting so abstract now that you’re talking about cutting taxes and a byproduct is Blacks get hurt worse than whites.” It was a cruel calculation. The Black poverty rate was higher and the need for social programs, greater.
So, when Richard Nixon called for “law and order,” the Republican voter heard “Blacks.” When Reagan praised states’ rights and attacked “welfare queens,” the Republican voter heard “Blacks.” When Bush hammered Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 with the infamous Willie Horton ad — Atwater’s baby — Republican voters saw “Blacks.”
Each political invocation of the “bad” Black, whether the parasite-coon, brute or baby-making Jezebel, heralded cuts to social programs. Poor Blacks got hurt worse than poor whites. They also got hurt with them. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965-68 War on Poverty had saved millions of lives. What was not being saved was the idea of welfare itself. Republicans gave it a Black face, even though the majority of welfare recipients had been (and still are) white.
After campaigning against “welfare queens,” Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” He cut payments to the working poor, cut a million people off food stamps and cut job programs. He then gave tax breaks to the wealthy.
Fifteen years later, President Bill Clinton in his 1996 State of the Union speech said, “The era of big government is over.” Later that year, he signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act; it ended welfare as an entitlement, limited benefits and forced work requirements. He then repealed parts of the Glass-Steagall Act and let big Wall Street banks play in the markets.
In 2005, George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security. He was stopped cold by Democrats and a disbelieving public.
The Republican strategy of displacing racism onto welfare and other social programs satisfied the GOP’s business elite. It did not help their base, who were trapped on both ends. Over them was a top-heavy GOP whose business leaders and donors were destroying the very social programs the white poor needed. At the other end, they were trapped by their own racial bias against “big government.”
What racist voters could not see in the footage of federal troops protecting Black children going to school in Little Rock was that the soldiers were not just protecting everyone’s right to attend public institutions. They were protecting the very possibility of having them.
Fear of a Black Planet
“It’s not a bigger government we need,” Barack Obama said in his 2013 State of the Union address. “It’s a smarter one.” I cringed as he spoke. The first Black President felt he had to soothe a public raised on the racial stigma of big government, assuring them that he wasn’t going to sell white people into slavery to pay off the federal debt.
Just a year before, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich launched a short-lived presidential candidacy by calling Obama “the most effective food-stamp president in American history.” He was asked about it and squirmed like an eel.
Months later, Pat Buchanan bellowed on TV, “Barack Obama is a drug dealer of welfare.” He contrasted him with candidate Mitt Romney’s work ethic. Romney was caught on a hot mic saying, “There are 47 percent of the people … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe government has a responsibility to care for them.”
Again, race works its magic between the lines. Again, the parasite coon is a shadow in the text. After Obama’s 2008 victory, fear of a Black planet became a rising rage. Black Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher noted on Roland Martin’s TV One show, “You saw a spike in racial aversion. … Whites see it as we’re losing power to them.”
It was Birth of a Nation again, only this time, federal troops didn’t just attempt to force racial equality: They obeyed the commands of a Black President. Each news cycle brought fresh proof that the United States was slipping out of white hands. A Latina was on the Supreme Court. Confederate statues were torn down. Black people rioted and protested in the streets.
When Donald Trump glided down the escalator, he was a one-man Ku Klux Klan coming to the rescue; he was the Redeemer of White Supremacy. He promised border walls. He promised “law and order.” He even promised to save Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security for the “deserving poor” — down-on-their-luck white people.
They needed it. Blatant white supremacy, left behind by global capitalism, had hit a nadir. Deaths of despair hit a heartland ruined by opioids and joblessness. Seeing no future, they turned to Trump — who, having no plan, turned to the GOP — who tried to “solve” this problem with a massive tax cut for the wealthy.
At this point, it doesn’t matter if this or that Republican is personally racist. They can toast marshmallows on a burning cross for all it matters. The GOP cannot credibly take a race-neutral position when its politics has been based on racism for the last 50 years. The effects of its policies are race-specific. And class-specific. And deadly.
We won’t see them, and we won’t know their names, but people will die. Quietly. Invisibly. Ten thousand of us will die. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers analyzed the Congressional Budget Office report that 13 million people will leave Obamacare when the individual mandate is repealed. He said on CNBC, “When people lose health insurance, they’re less likely to get preventive care, defer health care they need, and they’re more likely to die.”
Ten thousand. Ten thousand. I repeat it. Not just a number. It’s someone shaking with fever. It’s someone fighting for breath. It’s getting a phone call that someone you loved died, far away and alone because they couldn’t afford treatment.
How many people have they killed? On my laptop, a video plays of the GOP cheering the tax bill. I turn it off, go outside and see a line of people waiting for free food at my neighborhood church. Old men, workers, a neighbor I know, all wait with carts. A mother stands with them, trying to hold two squirming kids. She’s tired. I look at her and see across 30 years to my childhood and the moment I learned to be silent.
Nicholas Powers is a professor of African American literature at SUNY Old-Westbury and author of The Ground Beneath Zero (Upset Press, 2013). This article originally appeared at truth-out.org.
Illustrations by Lynn Foster.