You have to admire the Republican Party's nerve. There was George Bush in late January, surrounded by 22 black people, arguing for Social Security privatization on the grounds that the current system is unfair to blacks because we don't live long enough to collect much by way of benefits. A couple of days earlier, House Ways chair William Thomas, R-Calif., was suggesting that Social Security benefits might be adjusted so that people with short lifespans -- black people -- get their due from the system.
This sort of shameless public theater is testimony to the deep contempt that Republicans have for black people, as well as the chutzpah of the right in their fight to win political warfare. It is breathtaking to see right-wing politicians who not long ago castigated black people as a lazy, dumb and immoral race of mindless welfare queens and street hoods suddenly champion Social Security in the name of racial justice. This would be funny -- were it not so revolting.
Black people die sooner than whites because we are poorer than whites. Every thinking adult in this country knows why black people are poorer than whites, and why white conservatives have played such an important role in keeping black people in poverty. Millions of black children go to lousy schools, receive mediocre schooling, and are unable to compete for high-paying jobs or buy decent housing, health care or much else when they grow up. When black people turn to government for help, they are abused by conservatives for seeking a handout rather than pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps.
The vast majority of black adults hate Republicans because the GOP has turned the denigration of black people into a fine political art, winning election after election by promising white Americans that they are tough enough to keep black hands out of the public till. What would cause Republicans to pretend that they care about people whom they have castigated for fun and political profit since the days of Ronald Reagan?
There is a subtle and awful political game conservatives are playing. The Republicans are crystal clear about their intention to smash the last bits of the liberals' program for equality to smithereens. There is no way that conservatives will use government to promote real equal opportunity in any area of American life, so black people had better get used to the fact that our lives as second-class workers in the American economy is a more or less permanent condition so long as the right is in power.
Taking up the cause of black people in the Social Security fight serves three purposes. First, it makes a deeply racist political party look more moderate to some of its queasy supporters who like low taxes and small government but who are unhappy about racial inequality. Second, this playacting offers black people a break in a world that is otherwise quite indifferent to their needs. Third, the Republicans can throw down a challenge to Democrats whose lack of power means they have nothing to offer black people.
This last reason is the most important. The majority of black people in the American economy are trapped between a global economy that has ever less need for their labor and a hostile right-wing political movement that uses its power to inflict ever greater injury upon them. The Democrats do not have a clue about how to improve the well-being of working-class and poor people, nor do they seem likely to retake power anytime soon. When the Republicans throw black people chump change -- whether private accounts in Social Security or school vouchers -- and the Democrats have nothing to offer, they hope to show up their opponents as impotent complainers.
This is brilliant, cynical, hate-filled politics. It is also ugly testimony about the uses of racial inequality by conservatives as they try to turn black people into a cudgel to smash the legacy of the New Deal. This sort of thing will go on as long as liberals and progressives fail to craft a new politics of equal opportunity and fairness in a technology-driven global economy. Until that time comes, the new conservative race card will be a hideous thing indeed.
The good news is that a new progressive agenda is in the works, and has been for some time. The bad news is that we will have to win a long, low-level civil war against the right to restore social justice in this country. Time to stop whining and start fighting.
Copyright 2005, TomPaine.com