Politics of blaming the poor: Why it’s still Lyndon Johnson’s America

As the president gives his State of the Union tonight, a long, untold story of American identity is ever applicable

Published January 28, 2014 4:16PM (EST)

Sometimes it seems that little has changed. As a frustrated President Obama prepares to deliver the State of the Union address, it is important to underscore that income inequality and social justice are no less intertwined right now than they were fifty years ago, when President Lyndon Johnson spoke to the nation about matters of economy. In his speech of January 20, 1964, he stressed equality of opportunity, noting that a country as advanced as America should not ignore its millions of poor citizens, a disproportionate number of whom were non-white.  “Deficiencies of education and health and continuing job discrimination depress the earnings of Negroes, and other non-whites, throughout their lives,” the president said soberly.  “The fight to end discrimination requires constructive action by all governments and citizens to make sure–in practice as well as in principle–that all Americans have equal opportunities for education, for good health, for jobs, and for decent housing.”

LBJ had seen his share of rural poverty. He was trained as a Texas school teacher before entering politics as a Roosevelt liberal. Growing up in the sharecropping South, he understood that the free market did not guarantee freedom for everyone. He decided at an early age, he said, that “I was not going to be the victim of a system which would allow the price of a commodity like cotton to drop from forty cents to six cents and destroy the homes of people like my own family.”  In January 1964, a clear majority of citizens–68 percent according to polling–were behind him in his fight. Southern Democrats and southern Republicans made up most of the other 32 percent. Their states were the poorest, but their elected representatives didn’t seem to mind.

We now mark, as well, fifty years since President Johnson used his considerable political skills to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That one piece of legislation sought to prohibit segregation in public establishments, anathematize discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities, and chart a forward course on a host of social issues. Today, although the work of enacting justice and equal rights across the social spectrum is far from complete, many feel that society is essentially fair to all who work hard to achieve, and government has gone too far in compelling “politically correct” treatment of every non-white or non-male claimant to higher status. Many of our divisions as a political society revolve around these contentions, just as they have for decades.

In previewing his–and the martyred John F. Kennedy’s–civil rights initiative, Johnson understood that economic inequality was not a separate issue. He asserted that government had to play a role in providing a decent living for Americans of every race and ethnicity. Poverty, “this ancient enemy” crossing racial lines, required “versatile and adaptable” policies. Not from Washington alone, he underscored, but based on a broad partnership among federal, state, local, and private concerns. “Only in this way can we assure that the federal funds devoted to the war on poverty … will be invested wisely and well.” A Johnsonian economic strategy offered “productive employment to all who are willing and able to work”; and encouraged “free enterprise, innovation, and competition by citizens in all walks of life.” Spend to foster growth in productivity and to train displaced workers in useful new skills, he said; that was what constituted “the ultimate source of higher living standards.”

The question of government’s obligation to its citizens is at the heart of the perennial question of what it means to be an American, to truly belong. We are a conglomeration of cultures, though from our colonial beginnings Anglo-Saxon heritage was prized, English pedigree the assumed essence of American identity. To the nation’s unending discredit, skin pigmentation and outward appearance have more impact, arguably, than earlier civilizations.  Immigrants from Africa were enslaved and law after law passed defining many as inferior, dangerous, and unassimilable; after the sin of slavery was technically expunged from the record, those with darker skin, as American as anyone else, continued to be marginalized.

Our nationalism has been riddled with racial theories. Throughout the nineteenth century, the American “race” was defined as the culminating form of Anglo-Saxonism. Southern planters traced their elite English stock to the Cavalier royal lineage, while Boston Brahmins prided themselves as the true heirs of the English Puritans. Nativism continued strong into the twentieth century, worked into law through the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924, which favored immigrants from England and Europe, discriminated against those of the so-called lesser races, and completely excluded Chinese. When you add nativism to the stark facts of American slavery, you understand why our democracy has never been as inclusive or free as patriotic myth tells us.

And yet many Americans are incapable of acknowledging the full trauma caused by a history of deep discrimination. The Germans are not allowed to forget the Nazis.  Don’t you think that affects how they regard themselves as a people? The Chinese take a kind of perverse pride in their ability to withstand historical indignities from outsiders and abuses from those of their own Han race who exercise a cruel power. Russian suffering is legend.

Americans aren’t alone, then, in failing to transcend their history of mass injustice. We cannot explain an almost missionary zeal in pursuit of the impossible (“spreading democracy”), while large numbers of our own people have been deprived of the vote by way of poll taxes and unfair literacy tests. Presently, of course, cynical Republicans are behind a series of state-level initiatives to require voters to present photo IDs, a clear attempt to subvert the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by penalizing poor voters (and disproportionately affecting non-whites).

Tonight, President Obama may or may not connect economic inequality with race and ethnicity, as Johnson did, but it is a fact of some importance that California’s Governor Jerry Brown, along with his Democratic super-majority, has reversed the budgetary mess his Republican predecessor left for him in a populous state where non-whites now outnumber whites. California’s current surplus, along with its acceptance of ethnic diversity and immigration reality, present a healthier picture than what we see among the covetous, low-taxing Republican state governments where the rich contribute far less than they should – in California, one percent of earners represent one-third of the tax base. So how can we be “the greatest nation in the history of the world,” as patriots proclaim, until we care more about the lack of progress in actualizing economic and racial justice, asking more of the wealthiest (mostly white) citizens?

It was also recently Martin Luther King’s birthday. To honor Dr. King, Vice President Joe Biden quoted from the civil rights leader’s final sermon, given days before his assassination:  “Human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability.” With this sentiment, and in so many other ways across the short span of his life, Dr. King made it clear that a nation cannot make strides if, in moral terms, it stands still. History teaches us to despise “inevitability”; progress arises instead, as King added, through the efforts of “dedicated individuals.” There are plenty of such individuals; just not enough in political office. Virginia ex-Governor Bob McDonnell, whose covetousness has now led to his indictment (over personal gifts in exchange for favors), appears to be more representative of the lawgiving class.

Implicit in Dr. King’s message is the doctrine of humanism, an approach to the world of the living as old as the Greeks that centers on caring about human dignity, and that aims to improve the species generally. To do what’s right, our nation must organize on a large enough scale to counter other, less admirable human tendencies: perpetuating cultural conflict, permitting gross inequality, and acquiescing to power grabs by a privileged class.

As we enter 2014, an unholy alliance between government and powerful private interests continues to obscure what needs to be done to remedy economic problems that take their greatest toll on those whom LBJ was looking out for: the poor, the unemployed, the non-white people  artificially held back. No less critically, the voting public of our political moment is disorganized, far from savvy, and all too susceptible to media-generated distortions. We know this.

Voters should make the difference. That’s what the founders intended. They should serve as a force for reason and justice, in support of a broad humanist agenda against narrow self-interest. How can “the people” desire otherwise? It may sound strange, but the problem is that lots of Americans aren’t who they say they are. They are taught a particular kind of patriotism, a group-think that can substitute for honest introspection. They believe in their freedoms, but restrictively, denying equality of opportunity.

Some actually believe that when money goes to the poor, it necessarily comes out of their pockets and worsens their prospects. They hear all the time about their exquisite and unparalleled capacity to enjoy “freedoms”–what grants them superiority over other nations. As a consequence (or corollary) to this unprovable acclamation, they don’t value, the way the nations of Europe do, the teaching of foreign languages. Our students know pitifully little about world geography. Maybe this is why so many fear immigrants and the darker-skinned. They are taught to see American culture in a kind of vacuum, unattached to the larger world.

Arguably, the fictions produced on television and in the movies do more, these days, to describe American identity than lived life. We are a people who get things done in real time with an army of DNA experts, SEAL Team Six, gritty cops, and computer geeks. We solve crimes. We shoot straight. We dispatch the bad guys. We rescue hostages. That’s how we like to think of ourselves as a people, and how we prefer to imagine the rest of the world regarding us. We function like the adolescents for whom most shoot-em-up, blow-em-up movies are made these days. Fictional America trumps real America.

President Johnson sought the combined commitment of the federal government, private business, and academic institutions. Shouldn’t such cooperation be standard procedure in a truly democratic republic? Our complex social problems require sustained problem-solving and mandated reforms–not some heroic quick-fix that takes place on the small screen between commercials. But that’s what we’ve come to expect. Congress is failing the country day after day after day. And instead of concentrating on longterm improvement projects, the voting public is made reactive and sensationalist. Something looms and we focus, almost exclusively, on that one thing, no matter how banal or predictable it may be. Then the carnivorous media beats it until it’s dead–say, a bridge snafu revealing an election year scandal.

As a nation, we must learn to look back as we plan for the future; we must feel compelled to correct our path. True, the Civil Rights movement highlighted the slow pace of enacting racial justice. After 1964, complacency, inaction, became harder to defend. Recently, though, we have seen reaction set in, as in the Reagan era, whereby the working poor, and single mothers, white and black, and all those collecting unemployment insurance, are branded “takers”– somehow undeserving.

Why do we not blame the super-rich with their tax loopholes and offshore banking accounts? These are the real takers. Why must the poor take the brunt of the blame for our social ills? It is not the wealthy, for the most part, who sign up to serve in the armed forces. Nor do they do the demanding and often selfless work of nurses, firefighters, policemen, teachers, emergency aid relief personnel. The “bone and sinew” of our working population do not work on Wall Street; they work in ditches, in coal mines, on oil rigs, in nursing homes and classrooms. What happened to the proud idea that it is the duty of all to sacrifice comfort for the common good?   

If Americans more fully appreciated the dehumanizing power that destructive language wields in politics, if they could identify more with their invisible fellow-citizens and agree that government should act constructively to succor them, then our adversarial political system might function the way it ought to. When he was elected in 1800, at the conclusion of an especially bitter campaign, Thomas Jefferson uttered memorable words that reframed America’s Revolutionary ideology into a call to end political intolerance. Let us “unite in common efforts for the common good,” he spoke before the Senate, after taking the oath of office. Let us all “bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.  Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”  That is the gist of Enlightenment humanism. Does it sound antiquated? It shouldn’t. Lyndon Johnson understood. Dr. King understood.

Besides, income inequality is bad for business. The more that American families exhibit stability and health, the more they will contribute to the economy. “It is a myth,” said Bill Gates on MSNBC the other day, that “poor countries are doomed to stay poor.” The billionaire philanthropist believes in foreign aid. He has seen it work, especially in the area of healthcare improvements. Governments can be humanitarian. At home, too.

By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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By Nancy Isenberg

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Inequality Lyndon Johnson Martin Luther King Race Racism State Of The Union The Poor Unemployment