The end of white affirmative action
Former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said in a Wednesday conference call to donors that President Barack Obama won re-election because he promised “big gifts” to voters, “especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.” Romney singled out healthcare reform as a “huge” gift to these voting blocs and the working poor.
This echoes what the conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly has been saying. “The demographics are changing,” O’Reilly lamented on election night. “This is not a ‘traditional America’ anymore.” Latino, black, and women voters, he noted, were turning out for Obama. They did so, O’Reilly said, because “they want stuff.”
The audacity of these claims is breathtaking. The Romney campaign promised $5 trillion in tax cuts and a pile of regulatory and other favors to the wealthiest Americans. Over the past three decades such conservative “gifts” have helped the top 1 percent of earners – the likes of Romney and his donors – to nearly triple their incomes and double their share of the national income.
Now, Romney has the steely nerve to tell his bankrollers that he won’t be able to deliver on more tax goodies because Obama made promises to black, Latino and poor voters.
How can Romney and O’Reilly be so blind to the irony of their claims? Both men belong to the $20 million a year crowd, so it could be that they already had a lot of “stuff” in play.
But then there is race. The stereotype of the non-white vote as easily purchased has an ugly history. In the decades after the Civil War, Southern conservatives attacked any policy that might serve the needs of African-Americans as a devious means to buy votes. If a political opponent advocated funding schools for black children, for example, they were usually met with cries of vote buying. Such cries only died down in the early 20th century ‑ when conservatives disfranchised black voters across the South.
Some conservatives know this unsavory history. They understand that Romney has waded deep into dangerous waters when he blames his loss on his opponent’s promises of education and other “gifts” to minority voters. Republican Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a non-white conservative in a Southern state, pointedly distanced himself from Romney’s words.
Why do the likes of Romney and O’Reilly traffic in this canard?
They might well be blinded by historical memory. They belong to an older generation that came of age in the postwar years when New Deal programs – subsidized mortgages, education grants and Social Security benefits – became essential to a middle-class existence. They grew so essential that, like oxygen, they became invisible.
Yet there was something else invisible about these programs. In that “traditional America, they were mainly for white people.
That is now changing, however. Many non-white constituencies are asserting their claims to healthcare, education, housing and other “things” essential for a decent life.
This explains the sense of loss within sections of the conservative camp. And it is the historical context for calibrating the magnitude of Obama’s victory.
O’Reilly grew up in Levittown, a Long Island suburb of New York. As he explains in his autobiography, his beloved hometown shaped his vision of a “traditional America.”
Yet Levittown was no traditional town. It was a postwar “planned community,” a model for America’s suburban future. One striking feature was that it excluded all people of color. With a population of 70,000 in 1953, Levittown was the largest U.S. community with no black residents.
William Levitt, inventor of the postwar suburb, explicitly designed his model to be for whites only. He proudly swore he would never sign a mortgage to a black family. Levitt and his town fought in the courts and the streets to make this pledge stick. To this day, more than 97 percent of Levittown’s residents are white.
But Levitt didn’t build this model suburb on his own. He had federal support. In the postwar years, Washington provided the “stuff” to make places like Levittown possible. Then, government “stuff” was for whites only.
Consider, O’Reilly’s father, after wartime service, earned a degree, became an accountant and moved his family out of the city. This is the story of O’Reilly’s “traditional America.”
But what the Fox commentator leaves out are the GI Bill and other New Deal government programs that made this possible.
By 1948, 15 percent of the federal budget went toward helping veterans go to college, buy homes and move into the suburban middle class. By paying the cost of tuition plus a living stipend, the GI Bill allowed millions of working-class veterans to become engineers or dentists or accountants.
The federal government ran a domestic Marshall Plan for suburban development. It built freeways and sewer systems. The Veterans Administration subsidized loans, capped interest rates and waived down payments ‑ helping almost 5 million veterans buy homes. The Federal Housing Administration did much the same for millions of non-veterans.
By law, the GI Bill was race-blind. But not in practice.
Southern conservatives had demanded that state officials, not Washington, decide who was eligible. White administrators invented countless ways to deny black veterans access to education and training. To meet the needs of white veterans, many states expanded segregated state universities. But black institutions were starved of funds, and relatively few blacks went to college on the GI Bill ‑ because so few schools accepted them.
The housing needs of black veterans were similarly unmet. The VA and FHA denied home loans to residents of neighborhoods defined as “high risk” ‑ because “inharmonious racial” groups lived there. The road to the suburbs was blocked by the segregation codes enforced by men like Levitt. So the government programs that poured billions of dollars into America’s Levittowns left non-white Americans trapped in inner-city rentals.
This was a time, as scholars have noted, “when affirmative action was white.” As New Deal programs lifted millions of white Americans into the middle class, African-Americans and other minorities were systematically excluded.
The Nov. 6 vote tally suggests that not all that much has changed. Romney won 56 percent of the ballots cast by voters over age 65. Some may well share O’Reilly’s nostalgia for the segregated America of the 1950s.
More to the point, however, older voters still rely heavily on the federal government for vital needs. A third of the national budget goes toward Social Security and Medicare ‑ and that doesn’t include Medicaid and other programs that help seniors. Older Americans voted for Romney in part because they believed he could better deliver on these essential services.
So why isn’t O’Reilly thumping his chest about America’s seniors “feeling they are entitled to things”? A closer look at the recent political conflict over healthcare reform suggests that the answer has everything to do with his racial model of a “traditional America.”
In 2009, Tea Party conservatives unleashed loud protests against healthcare reform. They mobilized for the 2010 elections by convincing older voters that Obamacare would take away from their Medicare services. “Keep Your Hands Off My Medicare!” was one of the most effective Tea Party slogans.
There was no truth to it. Yet the Tea Party raised the frightening specter that by expanding healthcare protections to new constituencies – many of them non-white and younger – the pool of federal support to older – and whiter – Americans would shrink.
Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said Obama wanted to take money “out of Medicare to give it to younger people.” Romney and Ryan made this case when they spoke to older voters in Florida.
This gets to the crux of the conservative talk about government “stuff.” Obama’s policies covering health, education and immigration threaten to extend the social safety net for minorities, women and younger Americans. In too many cases this is still only a possibility. The administration has been woefully slow, for example, to come to the aid of struggling homeowners, who are disproportionately non-white.
Obamacare, however, is more than a threat. It offers the biggest extension of the social safety net in nearly a half-century. One key provision will extend Medicaid to some 17 million people who do not earn enough to purchase private insurance.
In states that agree to the extension, marginalized sections of the working poor, disproportionately African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities, will receive vital medical care. But Medicaid extension has aroused a right-wing fury ‑ with conservative governors from Florida to Texas opting out.
This conflict suggests the magnitude of Obama’s victory. A majority of voters cast their ballots for a candidate who has taken steps – if small ones ‑ to extend essential government services to marginalized constituencies without regard to race, nationality, sex or sexual orientation.
Voters, especially younger voters, turned their backs on a political movement that showers gifts on the top 1 percent, and has too many leaders whose political vision is rooted in the Levittown of the 1950s.
INSET PHOTO A: Governor Bobby Jindal at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, June 17,2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner
INSET PHOTO B: Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the GI Bill in the Oval Office, with (l to r) Bennett “Champ” Clark, J. Hardin Peterson, John Rankin, Paul Cunningham, Edith N. Rogers, J.M. Sullivan, Walter George, John Stelle, Robert Wagner, (unknown), and Alben Barkley; June 22, 1944. REUTERS/Courtesy FDR Library.