The 2014 mid-term elections are just eight months away — and the Republicans are worried about Black voters again.
They have good reason to be — that is, to worry about a repeat of 2012. Then, despite the best efforts of GOP-dominated state legislatures to block Blacks’ access to the polls, black voters’ turnout rate surpassed that of Whites for the first time ever. That achievement, along with the substantial turnout of both Hispanic-American and Asian-American voters, helped underwrite President Obama’s decisive re-election victory.
Equally important, Obama’s name on the ballot was only partially responsible for Blacks’ march to the polls, because the Black vote had been rising markedly since 1996.
So, despite the predictions of some politicos and pundits that the Democrats will lose the Senate in November, the vote of voters of color may once again prove the president’s party’s ace in the hole.
That’s part of the political lens through which to consider the recent comments by Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican chairman of the House of Representative’s budget committee, and Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News talk show host, painting black Americans as “problem people.” Their purpose was to signal the GOP and conservative echo chamber that it’s time to start whistling “Dixie” anew — but this time replacing the words of longing for the “old times they are not forgotten” with a lament about blacks’ supposed culture of poverty.
O’Reilly, responding to President Obama’s late February announcement of a Black Male Initiative to help young males of color prepare for a productive adulthood, commanded Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to “ attack the fundamental disease if you want to cure it … get people like Jay Z, Kanye West, all these gangsta rappers to knock it off.”
Daily Beast.com columnist Jamelle Bouie drily noted O’Reilly’s ignorance, pointing out that “Jay-Z is a multimedia mogul with a gift for business and the credibility of the art world. Kanye West is a hyper-talented producer and visual artist who has refined and redefined the sound of pop music several times over. And in their relentless drive for accomplishment and success, they embody the American dream.
“To Bill O’Reilly, however,” he continued, “they’re just ‘gangster rappers’ who need to be put in their place.”
Ryan, who’s tried mightily to erase the public’s memory of his spectacular failure on the 2012 GOP presidential ticket by talking about the country’s crisis of poverty, claimed it was largely due to a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and culture of work. So, there’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
California Democrat Rep. Barbara Lee quickly and bluntly got ahead of the resulting firestorm, characterizing Ryan’s remarks as a “thinly veiled racial attack … [that] cannot be tolerated. Let’s be clear,” she said, “when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’”
Lee added that Ryan should “produce some legitimate proposals on how to tackle poverty and racial discrimination in America. His uninformed policy proposals continue to increase poverty, not solve it.”
Ryan at first insisted such criticism was unwarranted. Then, when the heat continued to build, claimed he’d been “inarticulate” in expressing his thoughts.
In fact, the “lazy, shiftless” racial vein both Ryan and O’Reilly were mining dramatically illustrates that for a segment of white Americans bigotry remains impervious to logic or fact. Ryan, who was once believed to be knowledgeable about America’s economic history, somehow forgot that in 1999, at the end of the nearly decade-long period of prosperity, the black unemployment rate (now at 12 percent), fell to an historic low of 7.6 percent.
The reason: the demand for workers in the economy’s low-wage sector was so great, those jobs opened up, finally, to poor black men. A study of more than 300 metropolitan areas by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the think tank that serves as the official arbiter of whether the economy is in a recession, found that black males, ages 16 to 24, with a high school education or less, were working in greater numbers and earning bigger paychecks than ever before.
Those job-takers were pushed not by the pronouncements of civic or political leaders, black or white, but by their own desire for honest work. (The study also noted crime had declined most sharply in those areas where the declines in joblessness had also been greatest.) Those men, the most maligned group in America society then and today, understood what the poor have always understood. They don’t need any condescending lectures about the value and dignity of work. They just need the opportunity to work.
Lee A. Daniels is a columnist for the National Newspaper Publishers Association. His most recent book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.