When Race-Baiting Is Unintentional

Reporting from a campaign event in Rosemont, Illinois, Felicia Sonmez (of the Washington Post) tweeted this odd attack from Mitt Romney on Obama’s private sector experience:

“It’s hard to create a job if you never had one,” Romney says of Obama.

There are a few things going on here, all of them wrong. First is the assumption, common in Romney’s rhetoric, that private sector experience is a necessary part of understanding job growth. But that’s not true at all. The tools and skills that make a successful businessperson are only somewhat related to the tools and skills that make a successful lawmaker or chief executive. Just because you’ve run a successful firm doesn’t mean that you’ll have a sound understanding of macroeconomic forces. To wit, the policy preferences of businesspeople during the recession—cut spending and lower the deficit—are the exact opposite of what the economy needs right now.

Beyond the conceptual error, it’s also true that Romney is running with the lie that Barack Obama never worked in the private sector. I know that conservatives hate community organizing, but it isn’t a government job. Likewise, Obama spent his immediate post-college years working in a publishing firm, and before entering politics he taught law at the University of Chicago—a private institution. And then, of course, there’s the fact that being president is a job—and a terrible one at that. Now, if Romney meant to disparage the lack of profit seeking in Obama’s career, then he would be right. But, for my part, I’m a little disturbed by the notion that work only counts if it makes money for someone.

There’s one other thing that bothers me about Romney’s comment. Newt Gingrich gained a lot of mileage out of the declaration that Obama was a “food stamp president,” which instantly conjurs the image of dependent African Americans and “welfare queens,” despite the fact that it’s false—if there’s anything responsible for the larger number of Americans who use food stamps, it’s the Great Recession. My gut tells me that Romney’s attack—“It’s hard to create a job if you never had one”—comes from a similar place, with the same implicit message: Barack Obama, the first black president, goes from government job to government job without working like you and I do.

Whether or not this was Romney’s intent is irrelevant; for four years, race-baiting has been the norm for conservative attacks on Obama. Rush Limbaugh thrived on it, Glenn Beck lived off it and the late Andrew Breitbart built an online empire with it, with the Derrick Bell controversy as the most recent in a line of attacks on “radical” black people. Hell, it wasn’t long ago that Rick Santorum told an audience that he didn’t “want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” and it’s no coincidence that the push for voter ID laws is strongest where there are large African American populations.

Sure, Romney may not have meant his attack as a racial dog whistle, but in this world at this time, that’s exactly what it is.

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