Coloring the 47 Percent

Something big is missing in the ongoing dustup over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's videotaped remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income tax.

Not that people aren't talking. There's been plenty of pushback, and rightfully so. Romney's callous dismissal of nearly half of American voters as being wedded to dependency and weak-mindedness -- evidently because they choose to be on the dole rather than follow his bootstraps economic ideology -- has been denounced from all corners, including many fellow Republicans. Pundits quickly bashed Romney for writing off all the struggling Americans embedded in that 47 percent, including retirees on Social Security, veterans, the disabled, the unemployed and underemployed. That a presidential candidate would so easily and repeatedly denigrate all these folks in front of a small group of rich potential donors was insulting, even by the standards (or lack thereof) of say-anything presidential campaigns.

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I am glad for the outrage. But to assume that Romney was aiming his disdain at everybody in that 47 percent is to miss what he really meant and who he was primarily talking about. Consider the wording: Victims, people who feel entitled, who depend on the government for everything, people who vote for Obama no matter what, people who won't take care of themselves... Sound familiar? It's all barely coded language to describe black people. It's a time-honored Republican political tradition that stretches back to Richard Nixon and his famous Southern strategy of the '60s that successfully exploited white unease with growing black demands for civil rights and economic redress. Forty years on, Republicans (and more than a few Democrats) continue to get lots of traction out of this granddaddy of wedge issues, though modern political protocol demands that everybody denounce racism and praise the idea of equal opportunity. In his somewhat desperate pitch to potential donors , Romney didn't even bother to do that.

I'm not saying that Romney was speaking only about black folks, but he was certainly leading with them; raise the specter of undeserving blacks -- as opposed to undeserving vets or undeserving elderly, which just sounds plain mean-spirited -- and you're virtually guaranteed to stir resentment and win people to the cause of low taxes and zero government. Yet in Romney's biggest faux pas so far, the media has steered largely clear of any discussion of race, as it has for at least the last generation, preferring instead to characterize his remarks as more evidence of the conservative assault on the middle and working class. They're not wrong, but in consciously ignoring the role of race in the coarsening of our political dialogue, they do us all -- and history -- a grave disservice.

Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC's "The Last Word" finally brought it, as they say, when he blasted an old-time Republican donor in the Romney videotape who called attorney general Eric Holder the most corrupt attorney general in American history. Citing two famously corrupt Republican AGs who served under Nixon, O'Donnell speculated that the donor's total denunciation of Holder, our first black attorney general, was likely about racism. "You'd like to not believe that," he said. It's not a matter of what we'd like to believe, it's a matter of what we actually do believe. In matters of race, they are almost never the same thing.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

(Top image courtesy Flickr user Mark Nassal, used under Creative Commons license.)

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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