Romney's Racism: In the Gutter with Gingrich

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The Nation

Romney's Racism: In the Gutter with Gingrich

The sixteenth anniversary of TANF hit this week, and the Republican presidential candidate spent his time lying about the president’s position on it. President Obama, Mitt Romney insists, stripped the work requirements out of the temporary assistance program that replaced welfare for poor families under Bill Clinton in 1996.

Although every fact-check has shown he’s wrong, Romney and the Romney-phile propaganda groups keep pounding away at their message with ads like this one:

Unidentified male: “Under Obama’s plan you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”

The president’s responded in typically Obaman fashion. Without wading into the welfare fray, he’s wagged his finger at Romney’s facts: “You just can’t make stuff up….” On the campaign trail this week, the Democrat beat the drum for “more popular” government programs, like those for seniors and students. He's closing all his rallies with Bruce Springsteen’s rousing paean to solidarity, “We Take Care of Our Own.”

Good as it is, a bit of the Boss won’t clear things up. As even NPR pointed out this week, the Romney campaign is dredging up the welfare debate because, as a piece of political hot button–pushing, it works like magic.

NPR’s Ari Shapiro spoke to Peggy Testa and her husband at a Paul Ryan rally outside Pittsburgh:

PEGGY TESTA: You know, we think that the fact that the work requirement has been taken out of welfare is the wrong thing to do.

SHAPIRO: I told her that’s not actually what happened.

TESTA: You know. I, at this point, don’t know exactly what is true and what isn’t, OK? But what I do know is I trust the Romney-Ryan ticket and I do not trust Obama.

At issue here is “trust” and that little matter of “we.” As far as half the country’s concerned, those whom government takes care of aren’t “our own.” They’re certainly not “we.” Mitt Romney knows that by uttering that one word “welfare” the phantom “welfare queen,” is summoned into his campaign, along with Newt Gingrich’s famous “food stamp President.”  With that one word “welfare”—hey presto—the Republicans are talking race, as in “not us.”

Racial justice activist Scot Nakagawa, who has started the excellent RaceFiles blog, talked about the “we” factor in a conversation, recorded earlier this summer in New York:

“We need to deal with the fact that white people view white privilege as having a real cash value,” said Nakagawa. “By having that privilege eroded your economic status will be instantly eroded.”

There’s a complicated history here. “Vilifying people of color had the intention of causing African-Americans and native Americans to be viewed as less than human by white people,” says Nakagawa:

“But it had the opposite effect. It dehumanized white people in the sense that their understanding of what it means to be human is limited by race. It’s very difficult to see what are human needs, when they are defined in terms of race. We have much more in common than people would like to imagine but we continually limit ourselves when it comes to understanding how we are to serve our society and to see how the various needs of different people in our society are connected.”

"So, our reluctance to fund human needs is wrapped up in a fear that the funding will go to other sorts of humans?" I asked. Nakagawa answered: 

"Yes… The justification for limiting AFDC [welfare] and turning it into TANF was that black people were on the dole and having babies, stealing from our economy.… White people accepted the notion and moved on it. And who are the most of the people on welfare? White people.”

Barack Obama can fact-check all he likes, but it won’t make this go away. Romney only looks like a stiff; his campaign’s as happy in the gutter as Gingrich ever was. (If anyone was in any doubt about this, his "no-one ever checks my birth certificate" quip underscores this point. It's not a quip, it's strategic.)

The GOP is betting that race-baiting will beat the Boss, and history suggests they’re right. American attitudes are shifting, day by day, but majority/minority demographics aren’t destiny—not yet.

Talk about it Mr. President: in America, what does “we” mean? And what’s the price we pay for hearing “we” and thinking “them vs. us”?

Laura Flanders

Laura is YES! Magazine's 2013 Local Economies Reporting Fellow and is executive producer and founder and host of "GRITtv with Laura Flanders." Follow her on Twitter @GRITlaura.

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