We Are All Welfare Queens Now

Thinking some more on Mitt Romney's high-handed claim that one in two Americans will vote for Obama simply to better ensure their own sloth, I was reminded of Lee Atwater's famous explanation of the Southern Strategy:


You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me -- because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

The process Atwater is describing really stretches back to 1790 (sorry if I am on repeat here) when Congress restricted citizenship to white people. Progress has meant a series of fights first over direct and indirect components of citizenship (voting, serving in public office, serving in the Army, serving on juries etc.) and less explicit tactics to curtail access to them.

I think what's often missed in analyzing these tactics is how they, themselves, are evidence of progress and the liberal dream of equal citizenship before the law. It's true that for a century after the Civil War, the South effectively erased the black vote. But there was an actual black vote that had to be militated against, and in the North that vote held some sway. It's worth critiquing how the machine manipulated the black vote in Chicago, but it's also worth noting there was a black vote present, people exercising their own wills and prerogatives.

More to the point, as tactics aimed at suppressing black citizenship become more abstract, they also have the side-effect of enveloping non-blacks. Atwater's point that the policies of the Southern Strategy hurt blacks more than whites is well taken. But some whites were hurt too. This is different than the explicit racism of slavery and segregation. During slavery white Southerners never worried about disenfranchising blacks. After slavery they needed poll taxes and the force of white terrorism. After white terrorism was routed and the poll tax outlawed, they targeted the voting process itself. But at each level what you see is more non-black people being swept into the pool of victims and the pool expanding.

You can paint a similar history of the welfare state, which was first secured by assuring racist white Democrats that the pariah of black America would be cut out of it. When such machinations became untenable, the strategy became to claim the welfare state mainly benefited blacks. And as that has become untenable, the strategy has become to target the welfare state itself, with no obvious mention of color. At each interval the ostensible pariah grows, until one in two Americans are members of the pariah class.

In all this you can see the insidious and lovely foresight of integration which, at its root, posits an end to whiteness as any kind of organizing political force. I would not say we are there. But when the party of white populism finds itself writing off half the country, we are really close.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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