Race and Anti-Government Rage

In the mid-1990s, I was a community organizer in New Orleans, working with low-income families to oppose cuts in the nation’s social safety net. Often, if I told other white folks about my job, they would roll their eyes and complain that blacks were “looking for handouts.” What’s more, they would blame me for enabling these people of color — none of whom they had met — to be dependent on government.

Each time, my reply would be the same: Most government aid recipients weren’t black, most blacks received no aid, many among the poor worked but still couldn’t afford market rent, and others looked for work regularly but couldn’t find steady employment. Usually, the facts did little to dislodge the hostile and racialized stereotypes of those to whom I was speaking.

I’ve been thinking a lot about white racial resentment lately, amid the rancor over health care reform. While those who oppose the president insist their position is rooted in a disagreement about the size of government, rather than racism, it may actually be about both.

After all, when we discuss programs to benefit society’s have-nots or “have-lessers,” white folks often envision people like ourselves, taxed on behalf of “lazy” people of color. And if white America hears black people (or Latinos) whenever government spending is proposed, it may be impossible to separate ideological from racial motivations for their hostility.

This is especially true when commentators continuously blur the lines between the two: like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh insisting the president is pushing health care as a way to get reparations for blacks, or when Limbaugh has suggested that the only way to get promoted in the Obama administration is by “hating white people.” With rhetoric like this cascading downward from the top of the right-wing food chain, it’s a bit hard to tell where legitimate policy disagreement ends and true bigotry begins.

It wasn’t always this way. Whites once supported government spending, especially when we thought people like us would be the beneficiaries. Those who protest government health care didn’t object, for instance, when government-backed FHA loans helped 15 million white families afford housing from the 1940s to the 1960s, while blacks were essentially excluded. Indeed, by the early ’60s, nearly half of all mortgages received by white families were being written under this blatantly preferential government initiative. And whites didn’t mind when the government passed the Homestead Act in 1862, resulting in the distribution of over 240 million acres of essentially free land to white families.

But for the past 40 years, much of the white public has associated government spending with racial redistribution, thereby prompting the discovery of our inner libertarian. Only now that folks of color have gained access to government programs — and even then, far less generous ones than those to which whites have historically laid claim — have we decided that government intervention in the economy is something to be condemned.

And that’s a form of racism. Perhaps not as blatant as a sign telling the president to “Go Back to Kenya,” or picturing him as an African witch doctor with a bone through his nose (as some have done on their signs at tea party rallies or via e-mail chain letters).

But if your opposition to government programs stems from perceiving those programs in racialized terms, it’s disingenuous to claim that race has nothing to do with your opposition. It may in fact be central to it.

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