At a campaign event in South Carolina on Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was asked how he planned to include black people in his campaign and get them to vote for him.
Bush responded, "Our message is one of hope and aspiration." But he didn't stop there. He continued: "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." There it is! If you let people talk long enough, the true self will always be revealed. Not only is there a supreme irony in this racial condescension that casts black people, whose free labor helped establish the prosperity of this country and who were systematically excluded from the full benefits of that prosperity for generations, as leeches only desirous of "free stuff," this line of reasoning also infantilizes black thought and consciousness and presents an I-know-best-what-ails-you paternalism about black progress.
It echoes the trope about lazy "welfare queens," although as a report last year from the Congressional Research Service makes clear: "Historically, nonwhite women had a higher labor force participation rate than did white women. This especially held true for married women." Furthermore, although blacks are disproportionately the recipients of programs likes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a 2013 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that most households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult receiving the benefit work, and of those with families, "almost 90 percent work in the prior or subsequent year." The problem isn't refusal to work, but inability to find work that is stable and pays a living wage, thereby pushing them out of need and eligibility.
Bush's comment also hints at the role of black men without acknowledging the disastrous toll racially skewed patterns of mass incarceration have taken on the fortunes of black families by disproportionately ensnaring black men.
All history and context are cast aside in support of a specious argument: That the black community is plagued by pathological dependence and a chronic, self-defeating posture of victimization.
And this is not some one-time slip of the tongue for Bush. In Bush's book written two decades ago, "Profiles in Character," he wrote: "Since the 1960s, the politics of victimization has steadily intensified. Being a victim gives rise to certain entitlements, benefits, and preferences in society.
The surest way to get something in today's society is to elevate one's status to that of the oppressed. Many of the modern victim movements -- the gay rights movement, the feminist movement, the black empowerment movement -- have attempted to get people to view themselves as part of a smaller group deserving of something from society.
It is a major deviation from the society envisioned by Martin Luther King, who would have had people judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin -- or sexual preference or gender or ethnicity." Not only does this completely ignore the historical and structural effect of America's endemic anti-black racism, it also misinterprets King's own understanding of this phenomenon.
As King told an audience at Stanford University in 1967, he understood that the dismantling of legal segregation was in a way, the easy part. It was the structural racism, not written in law but on in the minds of men, that was harder to change.
He blasted "large segments of white society" for being "more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity." He slammed what he calls the "white backlash" for being the cause of black discontent and shouts for Black Power, rather than the result of it, calling it "merely a new name for an old phenomenon." And he declared that true integration "is not merely a romantic or aesthetic something where you merely add color to a still predominantly white power structure." You see, King wasn't naively oblivious to structural racism and how it cloistered power and inhibited mobility and equality; he was acutely aware of it and adamantly opposed to it. It wasn't about victimization, but honest appraisal. Most black people don't want America's prescriptions, pittances or pity, and never have.
James Baldwin told The Paris Review three decades ago that he refused to think of himself as a victim, and that "perhaps the turning point in one's life is realizing that to be treated like a victim is not necessarily to become one." As Baldwin explained it, "if I took the role of a victim then I was simply reassuring the defenders of the status quo; as long as I was a victim they could pity me and add a few more pennies to my home-relief check." Pity doesn't dismantle privilege, but supports it. Pity requires a perch. It rolls down. Pity reinforces imbalances of power. It can be violence operating as benevolence.
Black folk don't want "free stuff" as much as the fulfillment of the promise of freedom: true equality of access, opportunity and justice. Bush -- and America -- would do well to consider that.