Ronald Reagan, the scourge of Black America and the hero of the Republican Party, holds great sway over today’s conservatives. Reagan famously talked about black “welfare queens” and strapping young “bucks” as a way of mining white racial resentment to win over white voters. Decades later, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would echo Reagan’s politics of white racial resentment and grievance mongering when he was recorded warning donors about the "47 percent" of Americans who "believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing."
Last week, Jeb Bush joined that company when he said the following during a campaign stop in South Carolina:
Think about it this way, Republicans get 4 to 7 percent of the African-American vote… If you double that, you win elections in Ohio, Virginia. And we should make that case, because our message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn’t one of division, “Get in line, we’ll take care of you with free stuff.” Our message is uplifting, that says, “You can achieve earned success. We’re on your side.”
These statements are not gaffes: They are choices made by Republicans in the post-civil rights era (along with, yes, some “New Democrats”) to use centuries-old stereotypes about lazy black people to win over white voters. Racist stereotypes about “productive” white people (who are “good citizens”) and “lazy” and “unproductive” black and brown people (deemed “unfit” for democracy) are one of the pillars for a society that is built upon institutional white supremacy.
For example, the claims made by Jeb Bush, Reagan, and Romney are not unlike those made by whites, during the era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the European Enlightenment, who believed that black people were naturally “inefficient,” “useless,” “lazy,” and “careless.”
As historian Heather Richardson recently wrote at Jacobin, in his efforts to undermine Reconstruction and African-American freedom, President Andrew Johnson used language about “lazy” black people and “small government” that is eerily similar to that of Republicans more than 100 years later:
But they faced the resistance of Andrew Johnson. He vetoed the bills. In his veto messages, the president tied racism to fears of a dangerous underclass and hatred of the new federal taxes the Republicans had created during the war. Johnson offered a way for racists to oppose black rights by using a new, apparently principled, language about small government.
Johnson enlisted traditional Southern racism to attack the argument that government should help poor men rise. Ignoring the benefits for white Southerners, he claimed the measures would simply give a handout to lazy blacks, paid for by hardworking white men.
These beliefs persist into the 20th and 21st century, where successive findings from the benchmark General Social Survey (GSS) show that substantial percentages of both whites (as well as other groups) believe that black Americans are “lazy” and not “hardworking.” The core essence of politics in a democratic society can be distilled down to two edicts: “What have you done for me lately?” and “Politics is who gets what, when, and how.”
While it may upset the politically naïve, citizenship is much more than voting: citizenship impacts the types and amounts of resources and other supports that the government gives to a person or group.
Because the citizenship of Black Americans has and remains suspect and contingent relative to White people, the white racial frame marks the former as a class of people who are thus inherently “lazy” and “moochers.”
This is a grotesque and perverse misreading of history and the present. Why? Because White America was built upon wanting “free stuff”, and whenever possible, stealing it from people of color.
American empire was largely created by the stolen labor and the lives of black human property. African-American human property built the infrastructure of the United States. Black slave labor worked in agriculture, industry, and the skilled trades to enrich the coffers of White American enslavers. In the year 1860, America’s black slave labor was so profitable that it was the country’s largest financial resource, valued at more than $3 billion, which was more than all of the railroads and other industries combined.
During both the antebellum and post-Civil War years, America’s leaders began to seek new lands and resources to plunder and exploit in the American West, and eventually, in other parts of the world as well. Manifest Destiny, a belief that it was “God’s will” that whites populate the whole continent, deemed that the lands of First Nations people were to be stolen by the United States. Manifest Destiny also mandated the genocidal extermination of First Nations peoples to create the empty space and “breathing room” necessary for White America to go westward. The Homestead Act of 1862 was central to White American expansion. It gave the land of First Nations peoples to white settlers. This free land, and the wealth and income generating opportunities created by it, was denied by law to blacks and other people of color.
From the end of slavery through to the early 20th century, an untold number of black American communities were targets of coordinated violence by white people. This was done to reinforce white dominance and white power over African-Americans. These racial pogroms were also efforts by white people to steal land and other property from black Americans (and in other parts of the United States, Hispanics and Asians as well).
The theft of black land and other capital during the early part of the 20th century would create disadvantages of wealth and income along the color line that United States government policy would make severely worse in the decades to follow.
America’s middle class was created after World War II by programs such as the G.I. Bill and the FHA and VA home loan programs. These efforts by the federal government involved transfers of billions of dollars to returning soldiers and their families through free college educations, and financing home loans at almost zero percent interest. These programs were, for the most part, not available to African-Americans. This helped to create massive levels of wealth inequality along the color line in the United States, a race/wealth gap that persists into the 21st century and the Age of Obama.
White America’s wealth and income was subsidized and created by free resources from the federal government, free resources that in most instances were denied to black and brown Americans.
While little discussed by the general public, the submerged state is the litany of programs such as mortgage tax deductions, tax breaks for investment, student loan interest deductions, capital gains cuts, retirement tax loopholes, and other programs that millions of middle and upper class Americans take advantage of, but do not think of as subsidies or free programs.
The submerged state involves transfers of (at least) hundreds of billions of dollars a year. These subsidies and tax breaks mirror the contours of wealth and racial inequality in the United States. Because America’s wealth and income is racialized, white Americans receive disproportionately more free resources from the submerged state than blacks, Latinos, First Nations, and other people of color.
The hypocrisy of Jeb Bush’s ugly suggestion that black people want “free stuff” is grandiose. He was born into a rich and influential family. The opportunities for wealth and income this gave Jeb Bush were not earned—they are the result of luck and the fortunes of birth. Moreover, Jeb Bush is also a member of the American plutocracy. This group of people does not create wealth or income opportunities for the general public: they are a parasitic class that has gamed legislative and interest group politics so that the general public subsidizes their wealth.
Jeb Bush’s life trajectory is based on “getting free stuff” and then leveraging it for personal and political gain.
Ultimately, White America loves free stuff…especially when it can be taken from people of color. This is the definition of a Herrenvolk society and a racialized democracy…and it is The American Way.
Because white supremacy and racism are an exercise in hypocrisy and broken ethics, it only somehow becomes problematic when, like White America, black and brown folks want some “free stuff” too.