As the first African-American male graduate of my southern high school, with a daughter who was one of five black graduates in her Tuck MBA class, I’ve seen the broad and narrow benefits and barriers coupled and decoupled to race. Socially these barriers have drastically diminished. But economically, they have proven inert and are expanding.
The GOP cites character, but not in the way Dr. King meant. They commonly assault the poor and minorities, as being too dependent on “redistributed” largess, or as incapable. Yet real differences amplify both poverty and opportunity. The yards once raked by youth are tended by professional lawn services with contracts. Neighborhood mentoring is replaced by privatized recreation leagues with high fees. Neighborhood grocery stores closed. The entry-level jobs communities traditionally pointed to vanished. The traveling, live-in service jobs that once paid college tuition for college-bound southern students disappeared (my route, at French Lick, IN; Hot Springs, VA; and Mackinac, MI).
It’s more than just numbers; the exposure, experience, and quality of those disappeared jobs reset barriers to opportunity. The system is rigged for less, by blocked paths, higher prices, lower pay, inefficient communication, education tied to testing, extracted wealth, and micro-managed opportunities that constrict minorities and the poor.
So pay and hire local and young. In New Orleans, community groups sell water at festivals. Opportunities for self-help are built into every festival and celebration. By changing our behavior, we can again share the dream.
The historic test for racism beside motive and purpose are the three elements: a code word, a myth, and the denial of racist intent. These elements are fitted to the times, and oppose progress by attitude, legal or institutional action.
Racism changes as society changes. But it always has the three elements to deter progress. For example, slavery had the myth of helping the heathen and intellectually inferior Africans; its denial was represented as good work since slave holders provided full support. The word “Negro” was used in the newspapers and polite society because it was considered less offensive than the word “slave.”
In a great irony, during the Civil Rights era, the myth was Southern blacks were “content,” satisfied with the status quo! “Agitator” was the word, or “communist,” applied then to Dr. King. The myth of contentment served as its own denial. The use of “food stamps” in SC as the myth — in a state with a long context of opposing the quest for human dignity by people of color — and its easy denial resonates not as assistance for those black and white unemployed by the recession, but as those “dependent” (the code) on government “entitlements,” not mentioning the benefits to the nutrition of young children, the commercial benefits to local groceries (or fees to banks that issue the cards), and the restrictions on items that prevent misuse.
Using food stamps to attack Obama is a racist misuse. Everyone doesn’t have to agree for it to be so.
A Lee Atwater co-worker is the one who actually taught me the elements I have shared. In a discussion about the Willie Horton ad, he told me how it was not done at random, but systematically, composed of the elements I have described.
While it is without logic, racism of all stripes has these three common, repeated structural elements–a code word, a myth, and denial of racist intent. Racist appeals make use of all three. Denial has high appeal; it allows those with race-based views to avoid self-examination or confrontation; they get by guilt-free, scot-free, without being held accountable. These elements, skillfully used by Newt and others, manipulate our moral compass.
They had the opportunity to set a different tone. Any of the candidates, including Mitt, Newt and Rick, could have honored the non-partisan, legendary African-American entrepreneurs in the state, among them America’s best known blacksmith, Philip Simmons, honored by Reagan during his term. They could have mentioned the bravery and courage of Robert Smalls, a slave pilot who commandeered the Confederate commander’s flag ship, surrendering it to the Union Navy, winning election to Congress as one of the founder’s of SC’s Republican party.They could have pointed to the success of Rep. Tim Scott, GOP freshman co-president, in beating the son of Strom Thurmond for his seat. Continue reading Digging Deeper: Redistribute the Dream