Much of the political conflict between conservatives and liberals in the US today is really a conflict about race. And when race is specifically discussed in the US, only two groups are discussed: descendants of white Europeans vs. descendants of black Africans, that is, American slaves.
First among sensitive topics in racial discussions is government-provided welfare payments. Conservatives generally believe that many African-Americans are fraudulently receiving public money. (Remember Reagan’s imaginary Cadillac welfare queen?) Conservatives, like all Americans, personally make use of an average of four of the over twenty common sources of government assistance, such as the mortgage interest deduction and Medicare. While they do this, they express their strong disapproval of social welfare payments of any sort.
The real question, however, should be why it is necessary for welfare payments to exist on such a large scale in the richest country in history. The clear answer is that people at the lower end of the income scale do not earn enough money, even with full time work, to rise out of poverty. There are certain conditions, well documented in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed (and her excellent 10-year followup article here), that keep low earners below poverty level.
Many conservatives object to giving African-Americans welfare because, they claim: (1) they expect to live on it all their lives; (2) they don’t deserve it because they are lazy and don’t intend to work; (3) they have inherent moral shortcomings. Some have no compunction stating such racist opinions, including a number of Republican and Tea Party politicians.
However, statistics suggest that welfare recipients of any race don’t like being on welfare. And why would they? It’s a life of poverty. A majority of them leave welfare roles within two years, four-fifths within four years. It is not surprising that single women with young children remain on the roles longer than others, because it is difficult to work and care for young children at the same time, and of course this is true for whites as well as blacks. The important question remains, however. Why is it necessary for so many people to receive welfare in the wealthiest nation in history in the first place?
There are a few other things to think about. “The 53%” (who claim to pay all the taxes) say that the unemployed on welfare are just lazy, and should do as they did, which is get a job and persevere. However, most people on welfare who pay no taxes are either elderly, disabled, or students who will become taxpayers. The bottom fifth actually pay some 16% of their earnings in taxes of various kinds. Not to mention that there are few jobs, and even those don’t pay well.
Conservatives are certainly correct that personal responsibility has some bearing on the dismal statistics comparing blacks and whites; the proof of this semi-truth is shown by the fact that many do escape to the middle class, or even become wealthy. However, it is equally certain that the social situation itself is an ongoing cause. It is to some extent a chicken-and-egg problem dating back to post-Civil War days. Emancipated slaves, obviously, were poor, uneducated, and suffered hugely from racial discrimination, particularly in the South. They lived in lousy neighborhoods, went to bad schools, and so on. As time passed, many gifted African-Americans did, against odds, excel. But those left behind are still stuck in bad neighborhoods with high crime rates, poor schools, high unemployment, and all the other self-perpetuating social ills common to such places. Even today, virtually all African-Americans can report instances of racial discrimination or racial hatred directed toward themselves.
Conservatives tend to believe that people who suffer discrimination, who become unemployed, who are persistently poor, and so on, have no one to blame but themselves. A Tea Party Republican presidential contender, Herman Cain, who is black, regularly rouses cheers by blaming the unemployed for being unemployed, or otherwise blaming victims of the economic downturn for their own troubles. With four times as many applicants as there are jobs available, and many jobs paying at poverty level, it is obviously untrue that such victims are to blame for their own suffering, but mere facts have not changed conservative beliefs about this or much of anything else.
There were a lot of firsts for African-Americans during the past half century or so, arriving with extraordinary individuals. Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, then an onslaught of top talent in athletics. Remember when all quarterbacks were white, because blacks were assumed to be not smart enough? When there were no black coaches or managers? African-Americans literally invented jazz, America’s only original music, and contributed a long legacy of true giants such as Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and so on. And they still dominate in numbers much larger than their percentage of the population. There are numerous black entertainers getting top billing as well. None of this is news any longer. And of course there are many, many other highly accomplished blacks, not only in fields where they would have a public face, such as government, but also in business and professions and the arts in general.
With the election of President Obama we have largely gone beyond the era of firsts. But the black ghetto remains, and it is this that dominates the perceptions of many white Americans. When conservative crowds cheer Republican speakers who blame the unemployed for their own plight, they are mostly demonstrating their belief that African-Americans are unemployed because it’s their own fault. It’s not new, and the list of discriminatory laws is long: the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese internment, various immigration quotas, today’s ugly discriminatory laws targeting Mexicans and Latinos, and so on.
Everyone knows the discouraging tale of African-American men, who are more likely to be poorly educated, more likely to grow up amidst violence, more likely to be unemployed, and more likely to be incarcerated. Even on release, many remain unemployed, and their sons are more inclined to repeat the cycle. But one thing we can say with certainty is that the whole situation is a social trap, with no easy solution. It is not inevitable.
We must continue the ongoing effort to provide equal opportunity for all social groups in the country. Conservatives, particularly Tea Party politicians, are intent on derailing that effort, which is virtually guaranteed to make things worse not only for African-Americans, but for the country at large.