Some days it seems as if the GOP candidates are competing to be the governor of Alabama, circa 1960, rather than running to be President of the United States in 2013. Since the republican process to elect a nominee commenced, we have been treated to an endless string of racially awkward moments. Whether instances of ignorance or ignorant instances of institutionally racist ideology, too many of the republican Presidential candidates have re-revealed for us the colorblind fact that we are NOT post-race. In fact, judging from some of the candidate’s miscues and the underhanded pandering directly to the racial Right, we might actually be Pre-Race.
During a campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa, Rick Santorum, responded to a familiar question about government spending with a longwinded diatribe that ultimately led him back to the GOP’s sweet spot: demonizing (and tacitly racializing) the social safety net. Focusing on the size of government and spending, Santorum stated:
It just keeps expanding—I was in Indianola a few months ago and I was talking to someone who works in the department of public welfare here, and she told me that the state of Iowa is going to get fined if they don’t sign up more people under the Medicaid program. They’re just pushing harder and harder to get more and more of you dependent upon them so they can get your vote. That’s what the bottom line is.
But this was not the “bottom line.” Santorum went on to ‘clarify’ the links between government spending and race, rehashing the accepted argument of the right that the federal government, especially under President Obama, is dedicated to taking money from hardworking white Americans and giving it to lazy and nonworking African Americans. He argued, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money. And provide for themselves and their families. The best way to do that is to get the manufacturing sector of the economy rolling again.”
Santorum’s seamless transition from government spending to blacks on welfare is a non sequitur; it is indicative of the power of a white racial framework that consistently imagines African Americans as welfare queens and unproductive parasites on/in society. These stereotypes of African Americans stand in juxtaposition to the vision of middle and working class white folk as the racial model of hard work, virtue and dedication. While only 9% of African Americans in Iowa are on food stamps (nationally, 39% of welfare recipients are white, whereas 37% and 17% are black and Latino), Santorum’s comments resonate with the GOP’s vision of race and policy. His comments complemented Newt Gingrich’s recent lamentation of the deficient work ethic of black youth, his recycling of the culture of poverty/Moynihan Report, and his constant references to President Obama as a “food stamp president.”
Not surprisingly, Santorum and his fellow candidates have denied the racial implications here. Arguing that he did not actually say “black,” that some of “his best friends are black,” and that he was merely giving voice to the issues raised in Waiting for Superman, Santorum his been dealing the race-denial card from the top, bottom, and middle of the deck.
Despite the denials, the comments fit a larger worldview seemingly shared by Santorum and the entire field. Earlier in his campaign, Santorum argued that President Obama, as a black man, should understand the dangers of the government deciding who is and isn’t a person. “The question is — and this is what Barack Obama didn’t want to answer — is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says ‘no,’” Santorum argued during a television interview. “Well if that person — human life is not a person — then I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, ‘we’re going to decide who are people and who are not people.’” This effort to invoke race and to analogically integrate his pro-life agenda with anti-black racism isn’t just a campaign strategy. It reflects a larger worldview and ideological foundation. Shortly after entering the race, Santorum gave lip service to the notion that America was great before 1965 (before integration, before great society programs, before the 1964 civil rights act, before the 1965 voting rights act):
Social conservatives understand that America was a great country because it was founded great. Our founders, calling upon in the Declaration of Independence, the supreme judge, calling upon divine providence, said what was at the heart of American exceptionalism…’We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.
Similarly, Mitt Romney has based much of his campaign around racial nostalgia, often arguing that America’s greatness resides in “The freedom to choose one’s course in life, to be an opportunity nation, a merit-based society” as opposed to one based on entitlement. As Melissa Harris-Perry points out, Mitt Romney has centered his campaign in the “land of yesteryear.” Commenting on his campaign advertisement and its racial homogeneity, Harris-Perry reflects on the dialectics between “Taking Back The Country” and “Mitt Romney’s Nostalgia For an “All White America.”
This should be of no surprise as Santorum, Gingrich and Romney are also all in the party of Rick Perry. With a family ranch named “Ni–erhead” and support for the confederate flag, as well as policies to match, it is no wonder that MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews referred to him as “Bull Connor with a smile.” Before dropping out of the race, Michelle Bachman has expressed her fondness for yesteryear, joining many of her fellow GOP presidential candidates in signing the Family Leader “Pledge,” which declares: “Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.” This is the kind of drivel that passes for populous ‘outside-the-box’ thinking in the 21st Century Republican Party.
And then there is Ron Paul. Too many of Paul’s supporters are confused by his political brand and too many are quick to defend him against accusations of being racist. Just for the sake of argument and to hedge against any racist hate mail from Ron Paul supporters, let’s set aside the infamous newsletters. Let’s table the fact that part of Ron Paul’s original base of supporters was militia groups and white supremacist sympathizers.
Consider his policies and what the real outcomes of those policies will be. Paul wants to abolish the Department of Education, the EPA, and ANY so-called entitlement programs. (By the way, entitlement is code for poor people, old people, and people of color living off the tax dollars of upstanding working Americans.) Amazing trick how this particular code works since the VAST majority of actual entitlement resources goes directly to the 1% and the corporate subsidies, tax breaks, no-bid military contracts, etc. that they command via an entrenched lobbyism that dominates the political and legislative processes.
Dismantling the DOE, eliminating corporate regulations and oversight, destroying Medicare and Medicaid, eradicating welfare, WIC, and food stamps will disproportionately impact poor folk, which inherently (and disproportionately) impacts black and brown people. That may be an unintended consequence of Paul’s libertarian views, but that does not make these outcomes any less institutionally racist. The fact that we even have to have these conversations; that we have to listen to Santorum tell us that he really said “blah people” or that Gingrich can double down on his “food stamp President” comments; or that Perry can still campaign beyond “Ni%$er Head;” or that Bachman can believe that enslaved children are better off than free children – means that anti-black racism is still squarely entrenched in America’s political and public sphere. To think (or to argue) otherwise is just taking us back to an era where racism was more widely accepted as this country’s modus operandi.