The continuing decline of public sector jobs at local, state, and federal levels is having an abysmal economic impact on African Americans, for whom steady, stable government employment opportunities have provided a sure path into the middle class. The New York Times reported yesterday that “roughly one in five black adults works for the government, teaching school, delivering mail, driving buses, processing criminal justice and managing large staffs.” Because Black people hold a disproportionate number of government jobs, cutbacks that affect everyone hit Black communities even harder.
In many ways that goes without saying. When America sneezes, Black America gets the flu. But I want to suggest that something even more sinister animates this swift pivot in the country away from an investment in public goods and services. It is not simply that Black people are victims of a numbers game. Rather, there has been a wholesale P.R. campaign on the part of those on the right to associate all public goods and services, from public schools to public assistance, with the bodies of undeserving people of color, particularly Blacks and Latinos.
Any discussion of welfare or public assistance in this country is rife with dog whistles from the right toward the lower elements of their base, who in Pavlovian fashion, respond to code words about welfare and public assistance by conjuring images of the undeserving Black and Brown poor. In his new book “How Propaganda Works,” Yale philosopher Jason Stanley argues that while a “liberal democratic culture… does not tolerate explicit degradation of its citizens,” there are “apparently innocent words that have the feature of slurs, namely that whenever the words occur in a sentence, they convey the problematic content. The word welfare …conveys a problematic social meaning.” I am suggesting that the word “public” in our political discourse is becoming just such a tool of political propaganda as well.
While we don’t explicitly degrade public institutions, those institutions are, in practice, seen as less valuable, worthy, rigorous, and prestigious. In places as disparate as New York City and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the problem of severe segregation in public schools has been well-documented. When economic means permit, white families tend not to educate their children in racially diverse schools. Public schools are viewed as cauldrons of poor learning and social dysfunction; and white people, whenever possible, exercise the prerogative to keep their children out of these environments. That seems reasonable, but it is unreasonable to except that other people’s children should have to learn in these kinds of environments either. The current circus that is the education reform debate in this country demonstrates a point that Stanley makes: “The usurpation of liberal democratic language to disguise an antidemocratic managerial society is at the basis of the American public school system as it was restructured between 1910 and 1920.” In other words, we have a publicly stated belief in the importance of good public education to our democracy, but this masks a variety of ways in which public schools become tools of social control; and, in this moment in particular, that perpetuates the creation of a Black and Brown underclass.
Read the rest of the article at Salon.