There may be no better example of the pitfalls of race for a presidential candidate than Bernie Sanders, and we haven't even gotten to those "free stuff" Republicans yet.
Sander is an empathetic white liberal who has dedicated his political career to social justice and trying to make things better for everyone. Yet he is tanking with blacks. There are several explanations for this. Not least is the symbiotic relationship between blacks and Bill Clinton, a time-tested bond that has accrued to his wife, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, and pretty much deservedly so. But there also is the view that Sanders' rural Vermont background makes him ill equipped to understand urban blacks, let alone accept that problems like institutionalized racism and poverty can't necessarily be addressed with one-size-fits-all solutions.
Is it possible that some blacks believe that Sander is being condescending to them? Perhaps. But when it comes to even so-called moderate Republicans like Jeb Bush, you can cut their condescension with a knife. This is what Michael Gerson, George W. Bush's former speechwriter, called "the soft bigotry of low expectations," a subtle yet powerful turn of phrase that is more apt today than when Dubya read it off a Teleprompter in 2004.
Jeb Bush, asked at a campaign event how he planned to get blacks to vote for him, responded, "Our message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn't one of division and get in line and we'll take care of you with free stuff. Our message is one that is uplifting — that says you can achieve earned success."
Even assuming that Bush, like Sanders, means well, reading those words is painful for this white liberal, and for a black person looking beyond Hillary Clinton for someone to earn their vote next year, it must be deeply insulting. But the stereotypes of black people wanting "free stuff" and Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens" die hard. Although blacks still rely disproportionately on some assistance programs, the vast majority are wage earners and those who are not have difficulty finding work that pays a living wage. Oh, and most federal food stamp recipients are white, some of whom must surely be Republicans.
Not surprisingly, "free stuff" also did not work for Mitt Romney in 2012, a meme that he first uttered after being booed at an NAACP convention and, tone deaf to social realities as he as, repeated often thereafter.
This is a reason why presidential wannabe Dr. Ben Carson is so dangerous. He believes that blacks who support Democrats are stupid and emotionally incapable of thinking for themselves, and shares the delusional view with his fellow candidates that racism can only be changed through individual acts, not government involvement. This is one of the things that makes him "safe" to conservative white Republicans who cling to a Gone With the Wind view of blacks and believe Barack Obama is uppity and far too outspoken about racial issues.
And isn't Carson a stitch as he propounds racial stereotypes while playing to lily white audiences? He recently joked that he used to run from the police when he was younger, "back in the day before they would shoot you."
Ha, ha, ha.
SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE, YOU KNOW . . .
I came of age in the 1960s, the son of civil rights activist parents who participated in the big protest marches of the era. My father, who endured a repressive Roman Catholic childhood, exclaimed after the 1963 March on Washington, "I've never experienced anything like that. It was like being in church."
He was the campaign manager for the first black school board candidate in our district. (The guy won.) And our neighborhood playmates were pretty much nonexistent because their parents forbade them to associate with us because we invited blacks to swim in our backyard pool. Yet even with this background, I would never presume to know what it is like to be a black or other minority and the weight of the baggage of racism they still are forced to carry, let alone tell them what was good for them.
This brings us to the phenomenon of Bill Clinton being considered, in some quarters, the "first black president."
As black novelist Toni Morrison explained in coining that term in 1998:
"After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke?"The message was clear: 'No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and -- who knows? -- maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.'"
But was Bubba soulful? Oh, never mind.
I believed at the time that Morrison was a little too concerned with power and not enough about the indelibility of race, but in hindsight she was more correct than I gave her credit for. This is because politics is nothing if not about power, and in the cases of Bush and Romney, rich Republicans who have known nothing but privilege, it means lecturing blacks instead of offering solutions to poverty, poor schools, a skewed criminal justice system, mass incarceration, not enough jobs and decrying voter suppression efforts.
Do I even have to mention that Republicans have no problem giving "free stuff" to corporations in the form of tens of billions of dollars in tax breaks, loopholes and a look-the-other-way attitude toward regulation, while exporting jobs abroad and parking their profits off shore are no problem. No, I didn't think so.
'JOHN BROWN MAY BE AT PEACE, BUT NOT US'
Hillary Clinton, of course, took a New York Minute to jump on Jeb Bush for his "free stuff" remark and his not-so-subtle implication that is how she and other Democratic candidates appeal to blacks.
"I think people are seeing this for what it is: Republicans lecturing people of color instead of offering real solutions to help people get ahead, including facing up to hard truths about race and justice in America," Clinton said. "Republicans have no problem promising tax breaks and sweetheart deals to their corporate friends, but when Democrats fight to make sure all Americans have access to quality, affordable health care, early childhood education and job training, that’s giving away 'free stuff'?! Talk about backwards."
"Stuff" seems to be Bush's go-to word in the absence of being able to be more articulate when the subject is complicated and he'd rather avoid it. "Look, stuff happens," he declared after the Oregon community college shooting massacre.
Clinton has campaigned tirelessly, if sometimes stiffly, about race. So have Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Whatshisname. And it is sadly ironic that the people who would benefit most from Sanders' policy proposals support him the least. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat with the most outspoken views on race -- which is to say the views most in sync with the Black Lives Matter movement -- is not a candidate.
In Clinton's first major policy speech after announcing her candidacy in April, she issued a plea for Americans to come to terms with "hard truths" about race and justice. The speech followed by a week the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray after sustaining severe injuries while in Baltimore police custody, yet another instance of police snuffing out the life of a young man simply because he was black.
Dick Gregory says a lot when he defines racism as the ability to control somebody else's fate and destiny, and while I would stop well short of calling Bush and Romney racists, any honest musing on the subject inevitably comes around to power. As in I have it and you don't. This sometimes can be subtle: While most Americans want equality under the law, that does not necessarily mean they want integration.
(Voting in my first election, I wrote in the name of the legendary black comedian and political activist for president in 1968 rather than vote for Hubert Humphrey, let alone Richard Nixon. My mother never forgave me.)
"I can hate white folks all I want," Gregory says. "I [still] won't have the power to take their job or see to it their kids go to a bad school. . . . When a black person teaches their child: 'Be careful if this white racist cop pulls you over, don't talk too fast, don't move too fast, cause he might kill you.' Any time you tell a child to respect and fear, to behave, for a murderer -- children don't hear what you mean, they hear what you say. So they think there's something wrong with them. Why else would my mother and father tell me to be afraid of a cop, unless I’m doing something wrong?"
The so-called post-racial era that some people naïvely heralded with the election of Barack Obama was a fiction. Will a Clinton presidency change that? Don't be silly. Will Southern states remove the Confederate battle flag from their statehouses and license plates? Nope. Will Toni Morrison, Dick Gregory and I live to see the fall of bigotry and white supremacy? Of course not.
Gregory likes to tell the story of the hanging of white abolitionist John Brown in 1859:
"They tied up the rope, and he said, 'Oh, by the way. I talked to God last night, and God told me to tell you, that you’ve lost the last chance to free the Negro slaves with no blood. And he told me to tell you, when the Negroes gonna be free, it's gonna be the biggest bloodbath in the history of the planet.
"It took me a long time before I realized, it wasn't just the Civil War he meant. John Brown, may he be at peace. But not us."
Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968. Click here for an index of previous Politix Updates.