Marc Lamont Hill: GOP hopefuls playing to usual racial divide

Posted: January 11, 2012

JUST WHEN the Republican primaries couldn't get any more interesting, the candidates upped the ante by approaching the third rail of race.

In the most recent wave of debates and stump speeches, two Republican contenders have made extremely controversial comments regarding blacks and poverty.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told a group of supporters that he didn't want to "make black people's lives better giving them other people's money."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was quoted telling a New Hampshire crowd that "the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." A few weeks earlier, he said that youth in the "inner city" often lack a strong work ethic. His solution? Let them clean toilets. Such language promotes the vicious and dangerous lie that the nation's poverty problem is rooted in the black community.

First, a few facts. Contrary to conservative propaganda, most welfare recipients in the United States are not black. According to the most recent census, 31 million of the nation's 46 million poor people are white; 24 million of the nation's 36 million food-stamp users are white; 37 million of the nation's uninsured 49 million uninsured citizens are white; and 70 percent of social-welfare services like social security and Medicare also go to white families.

Despite these irrefutable numbers, the GOP continues to push the idea that blacks are the primary recipients of public assistance.

Of course, this tendency to twist the truth about poverty isn't new. Since the 1980s, the GOP has been committed to darkening the face of poverty within the public imagination. From President Reagan's construction of the lazy, hypersexual, and dishonest "Welfare Queen" to the sensationalist (and largely unsubstantiated) media accounts of urban welfare fraud, Americans have been taught that the welfare state is nothing more than a social safety net offered by hardworking whites to undeserving blacks.

This dangerous narrative is one of the primary mechanisms used by the GOP to sustain its power. By racializing the poverty crisis, the Republican Party is able to organize poor whites against their own interests. Throughout American history, disadvantaged whites have supported everything from slavery to welfare reform, all of which undermine their own prosperity.

Of course, this works only against the backdrop of white supremacy, a system that makes whiteness a coveted piece of social, cultural and emotional property. Within this system, even the most socially desperate white citizen finds pride in being white or, more importantly, not being black.

As a result, rather than aligning themselves with other poor people, these individuals instead elect to close ranks around race.

It is this perverted logic that allows a poor white mechanic in West Virginia to vote in favor of the Bush tax cuts and oppose welfare reform, despite the fact that such moves ultimately hurt him. By voting against welfare, and ostensibly against poor black people, such an individual is able to garner what W.E.B. Dubois called the "psychic wages of whiteness."

In other words, poor whites can vote against their own economic interests because they're convinced that they're "getting tough" on poor black people and forging solidarity with other whites, even elite whites who are economically exploiting them.

Of course, the Republican candidates knows this. That's why they have so willingly engaged in such racist banter. They also know that the reaction of the left, especially the civil-rights community, will only further endear them to their desired voting base. The only way to end this cycle is not merely to finger-point and scream racism, but to fight back with facts, reason and patience. We must educate the nation that poverty is a multiracial problem that requires a multipronged solution. Until we do that, we will continue to hear the same old song from the GOP.

Daily News editor-at-large Marc Lamont Hill is an associate professor of education at Columbia University and host of "Our World With Black Enterprise," which airs at 6 a.m. Sundays on TV-One. Contact him at

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