"There's a woman in Chicago," Ronald Reagan told an audience in New Hampshire while campaigning in 1976. "She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands. And she's collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000." The story—an exaggerated account of a 47-year-old black woman on the South Side of Chicago—played on racial stereotypes that struck a chord with white, suburban voters. The specter of the “welfare queen” has been with us ever since.
Despite high hopes, the election of a black president has done little to quell racial resentment. If anything, Obama’s election, the recession, and the changing demographics of America have heightened the fear that “real Americans” are losing their country—and their money—to undeserving minorities. It is precisely this anxiety that the Tea Party, some of whose members still doubt the president was born in the United States, has tapped into, and that Newt Gingrich was exploiting when he called Obama the “food-stamp president.” Now, with its latest series of ads and messaging, it has also become a cornerstone of Mitt Romney’s attacks against the president.
Shortly before Paul Ryan joined the ticket, Romney's campaign released an ad assailing the Obama administration for granting states waivers to tinker with how they distribute welfare benefits. "On July 12, President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements," the ad's narrator intones as images of white, hard-working Americans flash across the screen. "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check. And welfare to work goes back to being plain old welfare."
His next ad tells a similar story, this time focusing on Medicare. It opens with a close-up of an elderly white man staring directly into the camera, forlorn expression. "You paid into Medicare for years. Every paycheck. Now when you need it Obama has cut $716 billion from Medicare. Why? To pay for Obamacare. So now the money you paid for guaranteed health care is going to a massive new government program that's not for you," the foreboding narrator says.
On the surface, these ads might seem like standard conservative attacks on the welfare state. But as with Reagan’s “welfare queens,” it’s hard to miss the veiled racial subtext. Many voters may not detect the subtle politics of race at work here, but it speaks clearly to the subsection of the public that equates redistribution with handouts to poor minorities. On four different occasions, Romney's Medicare ad speaks directly to "you” as it depicts images of struggling white working-class workers. Some voters reflexively think of minorities when politicians demagogue against ”them.”
This reading is backed up by political science. As Martin Gilens notes in his 1999 book, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy, there is a strong correlation between views on race and opposition to welfare. "Most white Americans believe that blacks are less committed to the work ethic than are whites, and this belief is strongly related to opposition to welfare," Gilens writes. This association began in the mid-1960s, when, Gilens notes, the ratio of African-Americans in photos attached to articles about poverty jumped drastically. Until then, Americans largely associated poverty with Appalachia, but as depictions of poverty changed, so did stereotypes. "Despite the fact that African Americans constitute only 36 percent of welfare recipients and only 27 percent of poor Americans, whites' attitudes toward poverty and welfare are dominated by their beliefs about blacks," Gilens says.
Voters have different associations, however, when it comes to Social Security. In Dangerous Frames, political scientist Nicholas Winter shows that in contrast to welfare, Social Security has been framed as a system which one has "earned" entry to, and is more often than not associated with white Americans. "Social Security has been linked symbolically with the in-group and with hard work and legitimacy earned rewards," Winter writes. Thus Romney's ad, which shows Social Security as a savings account that others are dipping into. Race need not be mentioned explicitly as long as the schemas typically associated with the stereotypes are present.
Romney’s motivation for racially motivated attacks is fairly simple. As Ruy Teixeira explains at The New Republic, the fate of his campaign hinges in part on his vote share among working-class whites. Obama lost this group by 18 percent in 2008, but they turned on Democrats by 30 points in 2010, handing Republicans control of the House. If Obama gets around 38 percent of the white vote in 2012, he should hold his spot in the White House. Romney isn't quite reaching an adequate level of support among those voters. White seniors are the other demographic Romney needs to win by a wide margin in November, a group also primed to be receptive to this rhetorical shift. To appeal to these voters and counter Obama's narrative that the economy is in the doldrums thanks to Wall Street profiteering, Romney has turned to the politics of downward resentment.
The Romney campaign's characterization of Obama completes the picture—it portrays the president as an angry black man who is exacting racial revenge on whites by giving undeserving minorities your money. It plays straight into a stereotype of black men, an image Obama has distanced himself from. Romney pushed further on Wednesday, telling CBS the president "has put on a campaign talking about me, and attacking me. I think it's just demeaning to the nature of the process." Later in Charlotte, Romney said Obama “will do or say anything to get elected.” It's an absurd argument to anyone who has paid attention to politics over the past three years; Obama is more often characterized as the egghead wrapped up in his thoughts, too even-keeled for his liberal supports and conservative detractors alike.
But Romney is peddling a vision of Obama as an angry, resentful, black man who takes money from the good folks of the heartland to hand out to minorities in the cities. To top things off, Romney's campaign has accused the Obama campaign of being the guilty party when it comes to playing up racial resentment. When Joe Biden had an unfortunate slip of the tongue and said "they gonna put y’all back in chains," accidentally evoking slavery in front of a largely black audience, the Romney campaign went to town, accusing Obama of drumming up racial resentment to bolster his cause. The outrage flows naturally from Romney's string of dog whistles, allowing him to shift the burden and suggest that it is Democrats, not Republicans, who are treading into unfair waters during the campaign.
Our political culture has shifted to a point where charges of reverse racism against whites is treated by some with the same, or even greater, gravity as racism against historically oppressed minorities. Romney's line of attack is particularly effective because there is little Obama can do to directly address the insidious racial undertones. While Romney is free to express outrage at the mere hint of racial coding in the Obama campaign, the first black president must sit by silently as his opponent demagogues using racialized tropes.
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