Picture a cop, a prosecutor, a judge, a prisoner. Picture a taxpayer, a government clerk, a person seeking food stamps. What colors were their faces? (More)

The Not-About Race, Part I: The Faces of Government

This week Morning Feature explores the influence of race in the 2012 elections. Today we examine how government is framed in race. Tomorrow we’ll look at the racial politics of immigration. Saturday we’ll consider how to discuss race and privilege with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

Health Care and ‘Reparations’

I didn’t think of health care reform as a racial issue. Based on my own experience and the stories I saw – purely anecdotal evidence – the demographics of health care failure seemed to match the demographics of our nation as a whole. But Glenn Beck saw it differently:

Barack Obama is setting up universal healthcare, universal college, green jobs as stealth reparations. That way the victim status is maintained. And he also brings back back‑door reparations.

By February of 2010, Rush Limbaugh was also calling health care reform “reparations” for slavery. Researchers at Stanford and U.Cal-Irvine found that people who scored higher on a racial prejudice exercise were more likely to oppose health care reform. Even more intriguing, in a subsequent test such people were more likely to support the health care reform bill if told it had been proposed by President Clinton in 1993 than if told it was proposed by President Obama.

I haven’t seen statistics, but it seems reasonable that health care failures – lack of insurance, denial, rescission, bankruptcy due to medical bills – correlate to household income. The lower your household income, the more likely you can’t afford good insurance and can’t afford to see a doctor without insurance. If so, the racial disparity in household income would be indeed mirrored in health care failures. In that respect, increased eligibility for Medicaid, increased funding for public health centers, and health insurance premium subsidies probably would help proportionally more persons of color.

But as I see it, the racial issue is not the Affordable Care Act that tries to help the people who need help. Likewise with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, food stamp and school lunch programs, Head Start, SCHIP, LIHEAP, Pell Grants, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and other programs that help people who need help. The racial issue in those programs is the income disparity … that persons of color are more likely to qualify for help because they are more likely to need it.

Nonwhite Government

Yet as Ian Haney-López writes in a law review article titled “Freedom, Mass Incarceration, and Racism in the Age of Obama,” conservatives have for the past forty years used that racial income disparity to paint a dark face on the social safety net and government itself:

Here I want to start using a term that was first introduced by Michael Omi and Howard Winant. They refer to the “racial state.” They use the term to emphasize that the state does not stand above the racial fray, but is itself thoroughly immersed in racial contests. There is, though, another way of seeing the state as racial: disputants may present the state itself as having a racial identity. Consider in this vein the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and against state efforts to promote social welfare. Rather than seeing the state as immersed in racial conflicts, conservatives depicted the state (and certainly the Democratic Party) as captured by nonwhites. The state became a racial state in the sense of being by and for blacks. It supposedly coddled persons of color through civil rights laws. It refused to hold them accountable out of tender regard for the rights of criminals. It spent massively on their welfare, education, and other needs. And it hired and promoted incompetent nonwhites under the guise of affirmative action. Caricatures of the local welfare office – with persons of color not only standing before but also sitting behind the counter, outnumbering and displacing whites – became the image of the dysfunctional state promoted by racial reactionaries.

Picture again the taxpayer, government clerk, and person applying for food stamps. Did the taxpayer have light skin? Did the clerk and person applying for food stamps have dark skin?

When conservatives talk about “freedom” and “government interference,” Haney-López argues, they mean a nonwhite government interfering with white people’s freedom. Consider what Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said about the Civil Rights Act last week:

There are things that people were concerned about that were unintended consequences [of the Civil Rights Act], for example, people who believe very fervently in people having equal protection under the law, and are against segregation and all that, still worried about the loss of property rights … for example, I can’t have a cigar bar any more, and you say, “well, that has nothing to do with race” — the idea of whether or not you control your property, it also tells you, come in here I want to know the calorie count on that, and the calorie Nazis come in here and tell me. […] The point is that its not all about that. It’s not all about race relations, it’s about controlling property, ultimately.

White Government

Now picture again the cop, prosecutor, judge, and prisoner. Did the cop, prosecutor, and judge have light skin? Did the prisoner have dark skin? If so, your impressions were not off the mark. Most law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges are white. And a disproportionate number of our prison population are persons of color.

Indeed Haney-López argues that this make sense of a curious dichotomy: conservatives arguing for greater “freedom” while at the same time defending our nation’s absurdly high incarceration rate:

Between 1970 and 2003, the number of people in state and federal prisons serving at least one year behind bars rose from around 200,000 to 1.4 million. At the end of that period, county jails warehoused another 700,000 persons either awaiting trial or serving sentences of under a year, while a further 4.7 million persons were on probation or parole. Putting these numbers together leads to the harrowing truth that in 2003 the correctional system held under its coercive thumb more than one in every twenty adult males in the United States. This incarceration rate, the highest in the world, exceeds the highest rate in Europe by five hundred percent. The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but immures twenty-five percent of the planet’s prisoners.

You might think that imprisoning so many people would argue against our nation having “more freedom,” but consider this graph made by Mike Konczal at Rortybomb:


This graph shows that countries with higher prison populations tend to score higher in the Cato Institute’s ratings for “Economic Freedom.” And more specifically, the U.S. “Economic Freedom” score increased alongside the huge growth of our prison population from 1980-2000.

When the topic is programs that help lower-income Americans, who are disproportionately people of color, conservatives say “government interferes with our rights.” But bring up our huge prison population, also disproportionately people of color, and conservatives say “government keeps us safe.”

But it’s not about race….


Happy Thursday!