During the 1976 Republican Presidential Primaries, then-candidate Ronald Reagan coined the term “Welfare Queen” as he detailed the story of an African-American woman from Chicago who was arrested after using multiple identities to collect over $150,000 worth of welfare benefits. Reagan’s story had a purpose: to establish a connection between the “evils of taxation” and the consequences of “illegitimate” welfare programs that “rewarded laziness,” and to relay this to an American electorate poised to identify a scapegoat for what they viewed as a “dying nation.” The engine behind this message was the Republican Party’s overtly racist “Southern Strategy,” which formulated a conscious effort to “appeal to racist whites” who Republicans believed “could never forgive the Democratic Party for its support of civil rights and voting rights for Blacks.” Reagan’s implication, while purposely misleading, was ripe for the taking and tapped into America’s deep-seated culture of white supremacy, misogyny, and classism—prompting a public discussion over social welfare programs and the need for higher levels of “personal responsibility” from those who relied on such.
Fast forward 32 years—a period that witnessed the unveiling of neoliberalism, historic welfare drawbacks at the hands of a Democratic President (Clinton), and a disastrous eight years under the George W. Bush administration—to the election of America’s “first Black President.” For a nation whose history is littered with the horrors of genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow, Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the highest office was an incredibly symbolic victory over a shameful past—a seemingly giant leap over the obstruction of institutionalized racism. While not specifically elaborated on, one could not help but recognize the campaign motto of “hope and change” as having a firm foundation in bridging the country’s racial divide. To many Americans, electing a Black man to the white house equaled a proverbial cutting of the ribbon—the official opening to a “post-racial America,” ready for the business of not only bridging this divide, but also of finally addressing the collective disenfranchisement of a Black population still feeling the effects of a horrible past.
It is no secret that Reaganism, in its original form, was especially unkind to the Black community. “The Reagan legacy is replete with examples of disrespect and outright hostility towards African-Americans,” writes David Love in The Grio. “As governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act, which prohibited the public carrying of firearms. The law was passed specifically as a direct response to the Black Panther Party.” On the campaign trail, Reagan courted openly racist Dixiecrats in the South, championed the States Rights platform which was responsible for Jim Crow, and even referred to the historic Voting Rights Act as “humiliating to the South.” While in office, Reagan:
· stepped up the war on drugs, which was really a war against people of color
· waged an assault on labor unions
· cut programs of
· importance to African Americans
· slashed low income housing under HUD and social programs such as Medicaid and food stamps that disproportionately impacted black people
· attacked the government’s civil rights infrastructure
· sought to gut the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action
· waged war on the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada.
· befriended the white supremacist government in South Africa and vetoed a bill to impose sanctions against the apartheid regime.
It would seem far-fetched to attempt to establish a connection between the Reaganism of the 1980s and the emerging Black leaders of today. However, in reality, Reaganism never really left—it merely flowed through the pipelines of neoliberalism, gaining a near-omnipresence within America’s socio-political structure. Considering its permeation through the 1990s into what was once considered the opposition—the Democratic Party—it only makes sense that this process would eventually reach outlying components of the former center-left. Symbolic victories don’t always translate into real change. An Obama presidency, unfortunately, has proven to be no exception. In true Reaganesque fashion, Obama immediately “brought corporate executives into the White House, reached out to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and made compromise his new watchword. He also signed a surprise $858 billion tax cut that would have made Reagan weep with joy and huddled with Reagan’s former White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein for lessons learned when the Gipper governed amid economic troubles.”
Besides appointments and policies, Obama has never shied away from his admiration for the former President. In a January 2011 op-ed in the USA Today, Obama lauded Reagan for “his leadership in the world,” his “gift for communicating his vision for America,” and his ability to “recognize the American people’s hunger for accountability and change.” In a 2010 speech, Obama told a newspaper editorial board in Nevada, “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not (by tapping into) what people were already feeling, which is—we want clarity, we want optimism.”
While Obama spent time immortalizing Reagan, Black Americans—fresh off their symbolic and historic “victory”—remained stifled under the mounting economic crisis. Today, in the fifth year of the “first Black presidency,” the results are in:
· Black unemployment remains double that for whites
· The median income gap between white and black households has hit a record high
· Blacks have half the access to health care as whites
· The gap in homeownership is wider today than it was in 1990
· African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to have suffered foreclosure
· Net wealth for Black families dropped by 27.1 percent during the recession
· One in 15 African-American men is incarcerated, compared with one in 106 white men
· Blacks make up 38 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons
· Although only 13.8 percent of the U.S. population, African-Americans represent 27 percent of those living below the poverty line
· African-Americans are the only demographic group with higher unemployment today than when Obama took office. White unemployment dropped from 7.1 percent in January 2009 to 6.8 percent in February 2013. Hispanic unemployment dropped from 10.0 percent to 9.6 percent. But African-American unemployment rose from 12.7 percent to 13.8 percent during that time.
The reasons for these realities are vast. However, if you were to listen to the president, they most surely come from a lack of “personal responsibility.” Piggy-backing on Reagan’s three-decade-old message, Obama has gone on a tour of the American landscape, carrying this very message. His most recent stop was Morehouse College, where he spoke to the nation’s most prominent historically Black graduating class. “We’ve got no time for excuses,” said Obama, “nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. You’re graduating into an improving job market,” he claimed. “You’re living in a time when advances in technology and communication put the world at your fingertips. Your generation is uniquely poised for success unlike any generation of African Americans that came before it.” In other words, Black youth (or anyone for that matter) has no viable excuse for not making it in America. An antiquated and powerfully conservative message indeed—one that, while seemingly positive and motivating on the surface, is delivered on the false premise that individuals truly control their own destiny. An absurd notion to a working class that, despite working more hours at more jobs than any other time in history, is still waiting for that “trickle”; and laughable to Black members of that working class who have long been trapped under the shortest of glass ceilings.
Obama’s latest speech was viewed by many as condescending, elitist, and out of touch. When placed alongside his policy initiatives, or lack thereof, it was flat out insulting. And these allegations are nothing new. In 2008, during the presidential race, Jesse Jackson made similar remarks regarding Obama’s “tone” when speaking to Black audiences. “I said it can come off as speaking down to black people,” said Jackson. “The moral message must be a much broader message. What we need really is racial justice and urban policy and jobs and health care. There is a range of issues on the menu.”
And as Ajamu Nangwaya points out, Obama’s words ignore deeply embedded issues of racial inequality, including those faced by college graduates in the job market: “Many of these African men do not have control over events within the labor market. There are entrenched racist, gendered and class-related employment barriers that are resistant to personal effort and responsibility on the part of these prospective racialized, despised and stereotyped job-seekers.” A point supported by The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which reported that “African men in the United States with a bachelor’s degree earned only 82 percent ($41,916) of the median income ($51,138) of their white counterparts.”
The president is not alone in channeling Reagan while addressing predominantly Black audiences. On the campaign trail in late 2011, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain proclaimed that black voters were “brainwashed” and incapable of “thinking for themselves,” concluding that “if you don’t have a job, you should blame yourself.”
Political commentator Juan Williams has made a career out of preaching “personal responsibility” to Black men, suggesting they could “get ahead” if only they were willing to “work hard” and stop wearing their pants “hanging off their asses.” In a recent speech at Bowie State University, the First Lady teetered on the “personal responsibility” mantle by openly criticizing black children for what she perceives as a narrow-minded obsession with becoming “ballers or rappers,” and for “sitting on couches playing video games and watching TV,” as if that’s merely a “Black problem.” In a June 10 op-ed in the NY Post, a notoriously conservative newspaper, Bill Cosby gave his two cents on “what’s wrong” with African-American communities. In it, Cosby pointed to a lack of “personal responsibility” on the part of Black children for being unnecessarily “loud” and “angry,” yet “apathetic.” And this is not the first time Cosby has made such remarks.
In a 2004 speech to the NAACP, Cosby referred to Black youth as “knuckleheads” for not being able to “speak English,” ridiculed hip hop culture and style for its backwards hats and sagging pants, and reduced the entire Black population to “women who have eight children with eight different husbands,” millionaire athletes “who cannot read or write two paragraphs,” and “someone working at Wal-Mart with seven kids,” while ending his speech with the disclaimer of “we cannot blame the white people any longer.” Ironically, all of these charges come at a time when African American voters participated at a higher frequency than white voters for the first time in history, “Occupy the Hood” movements are gaining traction around the country, grassroots alternative organizations like the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners are surfacing, and Black-centered labor movements like “Detroit 15” have gained national attention.
Considering barely half of whites believe that racism against Black Americans still exists, and instead actually believe they are subjected to racism at a higher rate, it is no surprise that Cosby’s comments (as well as the others) caught on like wildfire through the mainstream media—the product of millions of white privilege- deniers seeking confirmation: “See. A Black man/woman is saying it, so we must be right.” This ultra-conservative approach to historic problems facing African-American communities, especially when coming from those who are viewed as leaders and representatives of that community, is problematic to say the least. In response to Michelle Obama’s speech, Jamelle Bouie succinctly wrote, “That too many black students live in poor neighborhoods, attend segregated schools, and don’t have much access to the outside world has nothing to do with their effort or their priorities. Michelle Obama is a native of Chicago. I have no doubt she knows this history. Ignoring it, and focusing on the daydreams of teenagers as the real problem, is a considered choice, and a bad one at that.” A bad choice indeed and one typically reserved for those operating under the banner of the Southern Strategy.
The president has called on his own “biracial” identity many times in an attempt to reach across “racial and cultural divides” and to symbolize America’s diversity and multiculturalism. However, as Nangwaya suggests, the way in which he has used these identities since being elected is particularly telling. While he seems to feel comfortable utilizing his “Black side” to lecture Black Americans about so-called “personal responsibility” and their perceived “shortcomings,” he never once has utilized his “white side” to lecture white folks about their collective role in perpetuating societal problems like classism, racism and xenophobia. In other words, as Nangwaya asks, why does the president not call on his “white identity” to tell a “largely white graduating class that they should stop blaming immigrants for taking away ‘their’ jobs, or stop blaming social assistance and welfare recipients for high taxes?” Ultimately, by embracing Reaganism, the president has assumed a license to operate under a double-standard while in office; a double-standard that went global in 2009 when he told African nations to “stop blaming colonialism for their problems.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict Black people—particularly black youth—and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that ‘there’s no longer room for any excuses’—as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of ‘all America,’ but he is also the scold of ‘Black America.’”
The right-wing populism that carried Reagan through two successful presidential campaigns and a mythological place in American history was no surprise. Promises to champion privilege and end “white guilt” attracted the upper classes in droves and strong condemnations against the “weakness” of liberalism and the “corrupt welfare system” which it supported, stroked the highly-reactionary and racist egos of a conservative American middle class that had been patiently waiting to strike back against the radicalism of the 1960s. Three decades later, the emergence of Black Reaganism points to the enduring strength of neoliberal corporatism as much as it exposes the transition of white supremacy from the rural landscapes of the Old South to the executive offices of the modern political elite. And the perpetuation of the “personal responsibility” myth is as telling as the seemingly conscious omission of structural failures that continue to relegate a disproportionate number of Black Americans to poverty and prison. “(W)hen you look at the prison industrial complex and the new Jim Crow: levels of massive unemployment and the decrepit unemployment system, indecent housing; white supremacy is still operating in the US, even with a brilliant black face in a high place called the White House,” explains Cornel West. “He (Obama) hasn’t said a mumbling word about these institutions that have destroyed two generations of young black and brown youth…. It’s not about race. It is about commitment to justice. Maybe he couldn’t do that much. But at least tell the truth…. He’s just too tied to Wall Street.”
Ultimately, as Obama and the purveyors of Black Reaganism have proven, it is not merely racism that creates this unaccountability, it is the tie that binds racism—as well as misogyny, homophobia, jingoism and other oppressive mentalities—to the alienating effects of capitalism, and vice versa. In this sense, it is not Obama who has chosen to be a “good Reaganite” by remaining indifferent to systemic deficiencies that continue to plague the inner-cities and urban ghettoes of America—it is the duty for which he has been chosen to carry out. As Glen Ford from Black Agenda Report concludes: “The Age of Obama, now in its second and final quadrennial, has largely succeeded in divorcing African American politics from the historical Black consensus on social justice, self-determination and peace. What remains is play-acting and role-modeling, an Ebony magazine caricature of politics that leaves the great bulk of Black people with, literally, no avenues of resistance to the savage depredations of capitalism in decline.”
If Black Power is “a range of political goals designed to counteract racial oppression through changing and establishing social institutions,” then Black Reaganism is its antithesis—a co-opting of Afrocentric direct action and a rebranding of white privilege and corporate culture. Although many would just as soon move on from “racial politics,” with all of its potential downfalls, the fact remains that America’s social structure still operates from a foundation built on racial inequity. “Blaming the victim” through hollow calls for “personal responsibility” is not the solution—because one cannot “pull themselves up from their bootstraps” if their bootstraps were taken from them long ago.
Colin Jenkins is a freelance writer.