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A CounterPunch Special Report on Race, the Poor and the Working Poor

“Kick-a-Nigger” Politics

by KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…. These are people who pay no income tax.”

– Mitt Romney

Welfare is back as the handiest weapon in the racist rhetorical arsenal. It’s back in the speeches of Republican candidates and surrogates, on right wing radio, and even in the language of those young “individualists” who see themselves as politically hip because of their perceived proximity to anarchist types. They believe the poor are poor because they want to be poor. Or are failed individuals. Or have grown so used to poverty that they are satisfied waiting for a check, that they like making the often humiliating trek to the local Department of Social Services office. ‘Welfare’ is back, which is to say ‘kick-a-nigger’ politics is in full swing.

I didn’t invent the term “kick-a-nigger” politics. I first heard it from black, southerner, democratic South Carolina State Senator Kay Patterson.  Patterson is getting along in the years now, but in his younger years he sometimes spoke with a pronounced, folksy, “Ole Black Joe,” “Foghorn Leghorn,” slow drawl or slave dialect whenever he thought circumstances warranted it.  Sometimes it was funny, other times niggerish and embarrassing.  He had lots of sayings like: “When the shit hits the fan everyone in the room gets some on ‘em.”  He would often remind folk of the times when politicians like former SC Governor “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, Strom Thurmond’s godfather, ran for office as a pro-lynching Democrat. This was after Reconstruction, when most southern white politicians rolled back the post-Civil War black gains. They put Jim Crow in place, rewrote state constitutions to codify perpetual white rule, set up ‘separate but equal’ schools and communities. And they ran for office on, as Kay put it, “who could kick-a-nigger the hardest to secure white votes.”

In the black community, kick-a-nigger politics has helped reinforce racial solidarity. Many people of color quickly assumed that the 47 percent Romney was talking about were black and brown people.  Although the African Americans population is estimated at 42 million plus, or 13.6 percent of the total population, even before Romney’s remark sunk in, the talk amongst blacks was pretty much “who you with, Obama or the white man?” Obviously, being poor and receiving government help isn’t a black thing. African Americans are most certainly not 100 percent of Romney’s 47 percent, but they are almost 100 percent against him.

Racial solidarity is a trick bag. During the Democratic Convention, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein my friend Deves Toon, and I were talking on a Charlotte street corner. A young, white, male on a bike interrupted us to let it be known that he was a Ron Paul supporter.  Goading him, I mentioned Paul never took full-on responsibility for the racist articles published in his now defunct newsletter. As if by reflex, he launched into talk of a “culture of dependency” and “welfare.”  I cut him off, called him a racist and said, ‘So you want to start a conversation with a black man with the word welfare coming out your mouth?’  In an instant there he was, playing the victim of the threatening black guy.  “Don’t put your hands in my face, man,” he said, fully aware cops surrounded us.  ‘I have no intentions of putting my hands on you or doing any violence to you,’ I said, tossing in reparations and reminding him how this country was really built on the backs of enslaved African labor.

“Get over it,” he said.

That’s about the time one out of the hundred or so police on the scene stepped in.  The officer, who was black, (and who moments earlier was jokily called “general” by another officer) told us we were “not gonna be disorderly on the corner.” I told him I thought I he was being disorderly for butting into a political dispute. I called him ‘dude’ and suggested that if he intended to arrest me for disorderly conduct then he should just do it. He said he wasn’t, but I wasn’t “gonna be disorderly…” and “my name’s not dude.”  With South Park’s Eric Cartman (“You will respect my a-thor-i-taaay!”) in mind, I sniped, ‘oh, you want to show your authority.’ Then I let it go and walked away, as jail would have kept me from watching Bill Clinton’s speech.

Later on that evening, as Toon and I sat eating at a sports’ bar, the officer that I had called ‘dude’ spotted us through the window. He smiled, waved and gave us thumbs up. We did likewise.  Thumbs up to the brothers when one’s cohorts can’t see you doing it is one thing, but the reality that since January 1, 2012 cops have killed a person of color every 36 hours in the United States is another.

Inside the convention, Clinton assumed the job of vouching for Obama with whites, the same way Jesse Jackson once vouched for white candidates to blacks. About a month after the convention, I attended an Al Sharpton rally for Obama at a local church here in Columbia. The ‘sermon’ was all about voter id and GOP efforts to “steal the election.”  “Don’t let them steal your crown!” exhorted Sharpton.  The “crown” has to be either the right to vote or Obama. I’m not sure which. Nothing was said about the mortgage foreclosure crisis, double-digit black unemployment, the millions that have run out of unemployment benefits or have dropped out of the labor market all together, a rising poverty rate or the expanding wealth gap.  All have continued to rise since Obama took office.  Yet congregants where on their feet throughout most of the rally. Shouts of “Tell it!” and hosannas filled the church.  Sharpton wrapped up saying something about David, Bathsheba and Solomon.  I’m also unsure as to who metaphorically represented who in that mash.

Democrats repeating the battle line “we need to grow our economy from the middle out” is one thing but getting into the middle class and staying there is another. Especially when the poor, working poor and middle class are all bombarded by unsustainable, every rising debt. Michelle Obama didn’t once use the word poor in her speech.  Clinton mentioned the poor four times or so.  Recasting his legacy he warned the crowd that: “They (Republicans) also want to block-grant Medicaid, and cut it by a third over the coming 10 years. Of course, that’s going to really hurt a lot of poor kids….” And he would know given his policies expanded the wealth gap, left Wall Street under-regulated and hurt the poor in more way than one. A couple examples of his racial hypocrisy come to mind. One was his initiative requiring citizens, mostly black, in public housing to surrender their Fourth Amendment or privacy rights. Another was the “one strike and you’re out” policy under which public housing residents convicted of a crime, along with anyone who lives with them, are evicted without consideration of their due process rights.  Sadly, the man who was once called “the first black president” left behind a larger — mostly black — prison population than when he took office. He successfully stumped for “three strikes and you’re out in the crime bill, for restrictions on the right of habeas corpus and expansion of the federal death penalty. When he came into office one in four black men were involved in the criminal justice system in some way; when he left it was one in three.

Obama saying that he would refuse “to eliminate health insurance for millions of Americans who are poor…” was his only mention of the poor at the convention. Not so surprising is that he made no mention of race, race-related matters, civil and human rights goals, voting rights, nothing hot.  And If Romney was blind to the humanity of the wait staff serving him and his millionaire donors while he slammed the 47 percent, the democrats in Charlotte were as equally out of it as they failed to even mention the working poor among them who put in 16-18 hour shifts at both conventions.  On the second night of the DNC, around 10 in the evening, I asked a wary-looking woman food vendor (who happened to be black as were most of the workers at the Time-Warner Center) how long was it until she got off work? She answered that she got off at midnight, but had been there since 4am that morning and had to be back at 5am…” She said that she needed the overtime “just to try to make ends meet.”  Nonetheless, also expressed her pride and support of Michelle and Barack Obama and was “happy to be in the building with them.”.

The incumbent made what sounded like a campaign promise to people like the woman working overtime.  He said that he would, “…keep the promise of Social Security by taking the responsible steps to strengthen it, not by turning it over to Wall Street.”  Yet Obamacare does just that. So in the future when that low-income woman or man has their federal income tax refund withheld to send to Wall Street to pay for their mandated insurance coverage, they may feel bamboozled.  Obama also made his promise after first pledging to seek “compromise” on the federal deficit based on the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which in all likelihood won’t help the Time-Warner Center vendor and those like her much.

This is what hooks together the 47 percent remark and “kick-a-nigger” politics.  The truth of the matter is that most U.S. citizens depend on the government for things large and small. The biggest welfare kings in the country are not the people standing in line to get help keeping their lights on. It’s the corporate chieftains, all with a hand out for more taxpayer/government funds, free land, free water and sewer, free access roads and tax holidays. Yet the “welfare queen (or king)” stigma is reserved for blacks. The face of poverty and the word ‘poor,’ in the racists’ mind’s eye is black, even though blacks are not the majority of the 44 million receiving food stamps. Whites receive 34 percent of those benefits, blacks 22 percent, and Hispanics 17 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Romney’s 47 percent comment backed up by campaign ads in swing states charging Obama with “dropping the work requirement from welfare” is par for the racists’ course.  MSNBC personality Touré found himself in hot water when he suggested Obama was going through “niggerization.”  Touré called Romney out saying:  “… He’s really trying to use racial coding and access some really deep stereotypes about the angry black man. This is part of the playbook against Obama, the “otherization”; he’s not like us…I don’t say it lightly, but this is Niggerization. You are not one of use. You are like the scary black man we’ve been trained to fear.” When pressed by a co-host as to whether or not Romney is a racist Touré backed down: “I didn’t call anybody racist, right, because I didn’t want to get into that. It’s a bit too much.”  Revealing more of his confusion he then pinned “How To Read Political Racial Code for Time magazine which began with the subheading “Do not be fooled by the canard that both parties do it.”  Touré wrote: “Do Democrats use racial code? No. The Democratic Party is a racially diverse coalition. There would be no value to playing this game. In fact, the party has risked alienating white working class voters by fighting for people of color, a tightrope perhaps best symbolized by President Johnson signing the 1964 Voting Rights Act…”

Was Touré right about “niggerization?” Sure.  Obama as “foreign,” “incompetent,” and “corrupt” to go along with the “birtherism” is rooted in racism.  Are Romney and those who use such a line of attack racist? Sure they are. One can’t separate the person from the act.  Yet Touré is way off if he thinks that only Republicans use racial code.  Democrat Al Gore’s 1988 use of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer whose commission of rape while on furlough was used against presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was code.  Horton, who was black, became a symbol of racially divisive campaigning and was later used in anti-Dukakis campaign ads by George Bush’s campaign.

Since the Dixiecrats abandoned the Democratic Party to join the Republicans, much of what they’ve done has been based on race. One could argue that Clinton and his DLC, blue-dog, neo-liberal democrats are the new Dixiecrats.  What the DLC or new Dixiecrats have tried to pull off over their Republican rivals is to take away their bludgeons of Democrats being weak on defense and war, crime and welfare which are often used as code for race.  In the 2012  election season the Democrats’ platform aims at reaching out to so-called “Reagan Democrats” or white working class voters, which is what racist campaigns do.  That’s where Clinton comes in. As president he co-opted civil rights themes and figures and distorted their meaning for his political advancement and survival. Whether it was his “Sistah Souljah moment” to put Jesse Jackson in his place to appeal to moderate voters or telling blacks how disappointed “Dr. King would be [in them] if he were alive today,” because of black on black crime or him and then-Georgia Senator Sam Nunn posing in front of a phalanx of black inmates in white prison suits taken at Stone Mountain, Georgia. Historians generally give Pulaski, Tennessee the dubious honor as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. But Stone Mountain is hailed as the Klan 2nd home. The picture appeared in newspapers all across the south the day of the southern primaries in 1992.  Nonetheless, at least that’s better than Obama doing what he usually does, playing ‘kick-a-nigger’ politics when he’s felt the need to do so.

Just ask Shirley Sherrod how it worked for her in the summer of  2010.  Taking the word of right wing blogger Andrew Breitbart over the civil rights veteran, the White House made Sherrod resigned from the Agriculture Department over a fabricated racial controversy in which she was accused of saying something anti-white in a public meeting. She was immediately condemned as racist. NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous supported her being pushed out. He said he was “appalled” by her comments and that his organization had a zero-tolerance policy for racism.  When it was revealed that the video was edited out of context and Sherrod was talking about how to overcome racism the White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had to apologized to Sherrod. Jealous, who had provided cover for Obama said they had been “hoodwinked.”

But it might just be those who expect better of Obama that are hoodwinking themselves. During the 2008 primary season, in the midst of one of those times the mainstream media was lauding Obama for “talking tough love’ and having the courage to tell “inconvenient truths,” to black people, he told The New York Times, “I’m not interested in engaging in a bunch of Sister Souljah moments just for the sake of it.  If I do that, it’s not for effect but because it’s what I really believe.”

Addressing a congregation at the Apostolic Church of God, one of Chicago’s largest black churches on Father’s Day 2008, Obama invoked the absent of his biological father to deliver a kick in the rear to black men, saying,  “Too many fathers are M.I.A, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men….”

Early in the same year Obama used one of the oldest racial stereotypes in a speech to black South Carolina state legislators.  “In Chicago, sometimes when I talk to the black chambers of commerce,” he said,  “I say, ‘You know what would be a good economic development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks weren’t throwing their garbage out of their cars.’”  Translation; black people are dirty and lazy.

Then, the day before the Texas primary he let loose again, in a predominately black venue with his, “Y’all have Popeyes out in Beaumont? I know some of y’all you got that cold Popeyes out for breakfast. I know. That’s why y’all laughing. … You can’t do that. Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school.”  Humm.  Fat black folk eatin’ chicken.

Obama didn’t stop with his personal responsibility kick after he won the election. At the 2009 NAACP convention in New York he told the predominately black audience that they needed to take more “responsibility” for their lives. He said: “…Now I know some say I’ve been too tough on folks about this responsibility stuff. But I’m not going to stop talking about it. Because I believe that in the end, it doesn’t matter how much money we invest in our communities, or how many 10-point plans we propose, or how many government programs we launch—none of it will make any difference if we don’t seize more responsibility in our own lives.”

Obama defenders most often say, “Well, there are some things that black folks need to fess up to.”   As if there’s nothing that whites, or any other group for that matter, have to fess up to as well?  Obama has yet to stand in the pulpit of a white church and tell white men or white families what they need do or eat?  He wouldn’t get away with it.

Meanwhile, during the Republican nomination race, Newt Gingrich called Obama “the best food stamp president in American history. …And so I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” Gingrich wasn’t invited by the NAACP but Romney was, and in June, after he had secured his party’s nomination, He told the organization’s Obama friendly gathering on Houston that if elected he would kill a health care reform law that brings coverage to 7 million uninsured African Americans. He was predictably booed.  The next night at a fundraiser in Montana, he told his audience that he knew he’d be booed.  “Remind them of this,” He told his donors “if they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy — more free stuff. But don’t forget, nothing is really free.”

The whole thing has created a double bind for blacks: both sides are playing you, but one side is beating you over the head; the other is doing something a lot more subtle. It’s like the good jail guard – no question better to have a good one than a bad one, but he’s still got the keys and you’re still in lock-up.

Gingrich and Obama are together on charter schools.  Gingrich, Sharpton and the president met together to promote their partnership in the Oval Office back in 2009.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan was in the room. Duncan pushes the “Chicago education model” that the striking teachers are against. Because of Duncan the Chicago’s public school system was sued by black teachers for “racial discrimination in the wholesale dismissal of hundreds of qualified, dedicated black teachers and their replacement with younger, cheaper, less experienced and mostly whiter ones” – another reason  behind the Chicago teachers’ strike.  Before the Chicago teachers push back the Obama administration had withheld federal education funds from states and school districts to force nationwide implementation of these so-called “reforms.” Also present at the White House meeting was New York School Chancellor Joel Klein .  Klein was Sharpton’s financial benefactor for his newly found educational expertise.  Still, no matter the source of Sharpton’s money, his role for Obama has been to take the White House’s right leaning agenda to black people, not to deliver a progressive agenda from black people to Obama.

The problem from the start for blacks is that the office of the president represents itself.  It’s not about Obama representing black peoples’ interest or “all peoples’ interest.  He represents the power of the office and the only strength he has is advancing that power.  His job with blacks has been to quell the forces of resistance to that power.  Obama preserved Bush’s rendition program, which relies upon torture, and extended the Patriot Act. He adopted  assassination policy, complete with secret “kill lists” and indefinite detention of American citizens.  No longer is it: “no man is above the law, no man is below the law, no man is the law.” All this in a country where despite fighting a “war on terror” against Islamic nations (not that I want to see prisons filled with Islamic people)  -African Americans make up 13.6 percent of the U.S. population but black men reportedly make up 40.2 percent of all prison inmates. So, they are more likely to end up labeled as “terrorists,” end up in jail, and be denied due process – a problem that many already contend with.  Many inmates already deal with the torture of overcrowding or super-max prisons that in effect are torture chambers. Inmates can be rendered out of state away from home and family to a private prison where “if they’re lucky” they get to work for a private company for slave wages. The day may come if it isn’t already here, that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) could end up being used in a ramped up weapon in the war on drugs with dealers being declared “terrorists.”  The result would be police with more power to kill more people.  Whoever comes after Obama inherits the  power.

Still, like at the Democratic Convention, blacks cheer the assassination of Osama bin Laden as a feather in Obama’s cap.  Yet there’s only silence, indifference or ignorance regarding the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki’s and his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was born in Colorado. Nothing said at about the hundreds of civilians killed in Obama ordered drone strikes. Nothing said about the 30,000 or more sub-Saharan Africans killed in the U.S. backed NATO backed takeover of Libya.  Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan called Obama an “assassin” and a “murderer” over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and U.S. military intervention in Libya. “We voted for our brother Barack, a beautiful human being with a sweet heart,” said Farrakhan.  “Now he’s an assassin….America “puts her trust in her weapons of war,” he continued. “She threatens the nations of the earth and has my brother calling for the assassination of brother Muammar Qaddafi. What has he done? I can defend that man. You don’t know that man.”  Yet when election time rolled around Farrakhan was on defense for Obama.  After Obama’s first debate with Romney, Farrakhan suggested to the president:  “You aren’t going to win any more white votes by being kind and gracious,” he said. “Be a little black.”

So Obama gets black support no matter what. No matter his plan.  No matter if his plan is more of the same or the same as Romney. The local weekly black newspapers I wrote for many years made the decision early on that they would not run any front-page criticism of Obama.  I was told that “the white papers will put out enough negative stuff.”   I’m willing to bet that if one were to examine Obama coverage in black papers across the country, many operate the same as my former local employer.  The articles are most often puffery regardless of the event that precipitated the top of the fold photo. The editorials inside are also generally friendly or tend to blame Obama’s missteps or inaction  on the system, Congress, Republicans, the Tea Party or racists. Adding insult to all the good will granted by the black press is the fact that out of the $1 billion dollars in Obama’s campaign coffers, black media won’t receive anything more than a pittance.  In a way, there’s a general indifference among blacks that runs the gamut of “he can’t do nothing,”  to “he doing all he can given how white folk are” to “he ain’t gonna do nothing.”

There’s no bonus for black radicals offering up a mild let alone tough political critique of Obama.  Cornel West and Tavis Smiley found that out quickly after they put Obama with the 1 percent.  They’ve endured constant vilification.  There’s just taking on the idea that Obama is “the best we’re gonna get” and those who think that just about any and all criticism of Obama is an attack on all black people.  Both notions may be true to some degree. Still, it avoids the question: Are blacks better off with Obama in office? The Southern strategy and what’s behind it has a lot to do with the answer.

L.J, a young thirty-some year black man I’ve known since he was is high school stopped me as I was passing his apartment to tell me he was thinking about moving in hopes of better fortunes.  L.J. has a small barbershop but also dabbles in hip-hop.  He says, “Mr. G. I’m thinking of leaving Columbia.”  I responded blithely, “Hang in there.” He tells me, “You know the ropes, and I’m on em.” Another young man about the same age as L.J. standing in the yard that I didn’t know was way more blunt.  He said, “Obama won’t let a nigger eat!”  I didn’t really have a good comeback for either.  I suspect that one or both young men, if they don’t have a drug felony that would keep them from voting, will be among the 90 million eligible voters that won’t vote.

Doubtless, African Americans are “better off” by voting.   Are they better off having voting for Obama?  I’d say. Symbolically yes. That’s if racial solidarity is one’s sole reason for voting.  But economically and politically, I’d have to say no to the second question.  The data regarding black economic decline over Obama’s first term speaks for itself.  Politically, it’s still a matter of whether or not blacks want to part of a system or want to change the system.

Ironically, and  to his credit, Obama flipped the Southern strategy in 2008 by winning North Carolina.  In that measure his election was historic for more reasons than just winning. He broke the solid south.  Yet in the years following his election either he squandered a lot of good will, didn’t really believe in the “change” he promoted, was a shill for reactionary and regressive forces or simply lack the courage to “tell the truth” about the ailment of white supremacy, “American exceptionalism” and empire and their unsustainable cost to the political, economic and moral well being of the country.  As Martin Luther King said in 1967 and it’s still true today, “The triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism are forms of violence that exist in a vicious cycle. They are interrelated, all-inclusive, and stand as barriers to our living in the beloved community.” The challenge for blacks and progressives is to realize that “we didn’t elect ourselves into this mess and it’s going to take more than an election to get out of it.”  It takes organizing before, during and after elections at all levels of society.  Change does not trickle down from anywhere. It builds up from the bottom.

A favorite movie of mine is Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s 2000 movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou? Set in 1937 Mississippi, it shows the subtleness (and longevity) of kick-a-nigger politics as one candidate speaks on the stump about his opponent:

“…the great state a Mississippi cannot afford four more years a Pappy O’Daniel – four more years a cronyism, nepotism, rascalism and service to the Innarests [Interests]! The choice, she’s a clear ‘un: Pappy O’Daniel, slave a the Innarests; Homer Stokes, servant a the little man! …It’s gonna be back to the flourmill, Pappy! The Innarests can take care a theyselves!”

No doubt as to whom the “Innarests” were – and are.

Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch/AK Press) and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at kagamba@bellsouth.net.