The recent vote of House Republicans to cut $40 billion from the food stamp program reflects a deep-seated and insidious racial resentment toward Americans of color. This racial resentment rears its ugly head within the provisions for the bill that demand that non-employed participants in the program get a job, job training or do community service activities. Though the bill in its current form will most likely die in the Senate, the fact that Republicans would even pass it should concern us.
Conservatives continue to lead under the aegis of a deliberate and willful ignorance about the long-term existence of a group known as the working poor, people who work long hours in low-wage paying menial labor jobs, and therefore cannot make ends meet. Moreover, there is a refusal to accept that the economic downturn in 2008 created conditions of long-term unemployment, such that people simply cannot go out and “get a job” just because they will it to be so.
I often wonder if government officials actually talk to real human beings about these policies, because if they did, they would find many people with a deep desire to work, but a struggle to find well-paying jobs. Some of those people would gladly take jobs that pay far less, but are frequently told that their education and years of work experience make them over-qualified.
This is not a race-based problem. The American middle class itself is shrinking dramatically each year in relation to a poor economy, an insistence on austerity measures from the right, and a capitulation to these measures on the left. However, the complete irrationality and utter severity of the legislation, and the total lack of empathy and identification that inform contemporary Republican social advocacy is tied to a narrative about lazy black people and thieving “illegal” brown people.
In 1976, Ronald Reagan invented the term “welfare queen,” to characterize the actions of exactly one person in Chicago who had bilked the welfare system out of a staggering amount of money. Buttressed by an underlying white racial resentment of the liberal pieces of legislation that emerged during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – laws that had attempted to change conditions, but could not change hearts and minds around racial inequality issues — white conservatives latched on to a narrative about lazy African-Americans stealing from taxpayers and living lavish lives financed by the welfare state.
That narrative has persisted well into the 21st century when Newt Gingrich derisively referred to Barack Obama as the “Food Stamp President” in the 2012 elections. Uninterrogated and misplaced racial resentment has been the most effective strategy for making white people support draconian social policies in the name of “taking the country back.” This is true, even though in sheer numbers, white people are the largest group of recipients of the SNAP program.
Fiscal conservative politicians (including some Democrats like Bill Clinton) have presided over a massive and systematic redistribution of wealth into the 1 percent since the 1980s. For African-Americans this means that we lost over half of our collective (and meager) net wealth, in just the last five years, due to predatory lending and the the machinations of big business. But it is easier to hate and regulate welfare recipients.
Since everyone knows that welfare queens finance their lives of luxury through the receipt of food stamps, which amounts on average to about $135 in groceries each month, cutting the food stamp program, a move that will take nearly 4 million people off the rolls in the next 10 years, is not merely a pragmatic measure or a “necessary evil,” but rather a deeply symbolic act that points to recalcitrant and entrenched racist attitudes on the right. It turns out, then, that African-Americans are not the only group of voters whose political behavior is motivated – at least, in part -- by racial identity.
The Republican Party often capitalizes on these attitudes about poor African-Americans in moments of economic downturn, as a way to rally white working- and middle-class American voters. This is very similar to the strategy used by the Southern Planter class in the 1850s to curtail alliances between working-class white people and enslaved African-Americans.
Rather than create a more equitable system by freeing the enslaved and paying everyone fair wages, the plantocracy deployed a narrative about white racial superiority that caused poverty-stricken white people to disavow their own class interests in service of racial unity. In fact, as David Roediger outlines in his now classic work “The Wages of Whiteness,” this is one of the key processes that led to white people in the U.S. becoming a unified racial group, beyond the ethnic identities (Polish, German, Irish, etc.) that had previously characterized them. Without benefit of this historical context, the consistency with which contemporary white conservatives vote against their own economic interests, in order to remain beholden to fiscal and social conservatism would appear downright peculiar.
Beyond the academic implications of these choices, I am concerned about real people who need access to these services. There are members of my own family who need public assistance, because they live in economically depressed areas where job opportunities are few. There are college students and graduate students whom I teach, who are supporting themselves through school, and use food stamps so they can eat each month. And there are countless children, who come from poor homes in rural and urban areas throughout this country, who need the security that comes from being able to eat three square meals a day, so that they can be healthy and perform well in school.
A final note of caution: In a world with no food security, there will be increased violence. This is related to a contemporary crisis that we are seeing among youth. When we scratch our heads wondering why we have seen a surge of bullying in schools and bullying deaths in response, perhaps we should admit that we are a nation of bullies. Our children are merely modeling the logic of a nation that ties its own sense of status, identity and power to its ability to unrelentingly pick on the “least of these.” In this American dystopia, the disproportionately black and brown least of these will be left with no other choice but to fight back or (destroy themselves and others as they) die trying.