With A Wink and A Nudge
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.””
– Lee Atwater, 1981
Just in case any of you were wondering why all this austerity talk plays so well in the impoverished south…
The conservative agenda, in a climate of scarcity, racializes policy making, calling for deep cuts in programs for the poor. The beneficiaries of these programs are disproportionately black and Hispanic. In 2009, according to census data, 50.9 percent of black households, 53.3 percent of Hispanic households and 20.5 percent of white households received some form of means-tested government assistance, including food stamps, Medicaid and public housing.
Less obviously, but just as racially charged, is the assault on public employees. “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots,” declared Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin.
For black Americans, government employment is a crucial means of upward mobility. The federal work force is 18.6 percent African-American, compared with 10.9 percent in the private sector. The percentages of African-Americans are highest in just those agencies that are most actively targeted for cuts by Republicans: the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 38.3 percent; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 42.4 percent; and the Education Department, 36.6 percent.
The politics of austerity are inherently favorable to conservatives and inhospitable to liberals. Congressional trench warfare rewards those most willing to risk all. Republicans demonstrated this in last summer’s debt ceiling fight, deploying the threat of a default on Treasury obligations to force spending cuts.
Conservatives are more willing to inflict harm on adversaries and more readily see conflicts in zero-sum terms — the basic framework of the contemporary debate. Once austerity dominates the agenda, the only question is where the axe falls.
It’s because the “Southern Strategy” is alive and well. The GOP is still running out of the same playbook it had 40 years ago, and their attitudes toward minorities have not changed over the last four decades either.
Just keep that in mind every time one of the disgustingly wealthy, white men in Congress stands up in front of a camera to harp on deficits and spending.