Michael Tomasky on How the Right Is Still Racist

The GOP wants to woo people of color. But it won’t help until the party stops its race baiting.

John Amis / AP

Well, it’s all very touching now that Sean Hannity wants the Republicans to embrace immigration reform, isn’t it? And Charles Krauthammer, bless him, calling on the GOP to repeat the word “amnesty” as if it were some tantric mantra of salvation. Look, I think it would be great if Republicans would vote for a bill including a path to citizenship for people who came here illegally. But if they think they don’t have a long list of other problems, these people are just delusional. And the list of problems starts with the phrase made famous by Mitt Romney, a little phrase perfumed enough in racial code to have raised a wry smile on Jesse Helms’s face.

Let’s travel back in time to Romney’s infamous NAACP speech, the one he gave (in my view) basically so that he could be booed by a black audience in order to impress his skeptical base. That was July 11. The next day, he spoke at a fundraiser in Hamilton, Mont.—I’m just guessing here, but it was probably a pretty melanin-deprived room. And he told them: “When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare they weren’t happy, I didn’t get the same response. That’s OK, I want people to know what I stand for and if I don’t stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that’s just fine. But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff.”

The superstitious mind pondering any question latches on to the first answer that is both a) plausible and b) supportive of its darkest suspicions. And so, just as some in the olden days concluded that a woman was guilty of being a witch if she didn’t cry when she was accused, today’s conservatives took to Romney’s analysis like Donald Trump to styling mousse. Of course! It explained everything! These people—or, to put it in the usual way, “those people”—just want government to take care of them.

Then came the famous 47 percent video. Remember what Romney was asked that occasioned his infamous comments? He was asked what he would do to convince Americans that “you’ve got to take care of yourself” instead of depending on the government. Remember that Romney said he’ll “never convince” the 47 percent to live that way. And remember, finally, that after David Corn made the video public, the overwhelming majority of conservative pundits and thinkers, far from shuddering at Romney’s remarks, urged him to take the argument public and run on it.

How out of it can millions of Americans be? Do they really have no idea that they’re talking about the people who, generally speaking, are the hardest-working people in the country? What exact “stuff” do they think comes “free” to people who pick lettuce, bus tables, clean their offices after they’ve left for the day, mulch their perennial beds? They are completely out of their minds.

The statistics tell us that a lot of these workers—I mean people who earn less than the median wage of $48,000—don’t get much free stuff at all. Many aren’t offered employer-sponsored insurance. Virtually all pay a higher share of their income in taxes than most millionaires, because even though some of them don’t pay income tax, the payroll tax socks them pretty good. And yes, maybe they can get their kids free care at a clinic, but thank God for that, unless we want to start blaming children for their parents’ socioeconomic status (which of course some do).

Or maybe the Romney people would say, “No, no, we don’t mean people who work hard, they’re OK. We just mean the moochers.” But what exactly do they mean by that? People on welfare? That’s 4.6 million people. I’m sure you can do this math yourself, but that’s not exactly 47 percent of the country. It’s 1.5 percent. Are they really so divorced from reality that the difference between 1.5 percent and 47 percent is just a rounding error?

And there was Bill O’Reilly on election night carrying on about how the results proved that most Americans want dependency. It’s madness. And it’s racist. I’m certain O’Reilly doesn’t even hear that it’s racist. And not just O’Reilly, but the whole cohort—no ability whatsoever to put themselves in the position of the office cleaners or garden mulchers, so many of whom are black or brown or immigrants, and imagine how it sounds to be accused of freeloading when you’re breaking your back, often serving white people who just ignore you, to try to support your children.

And they don’t even hear the racial paternalism, I’m sure, in the stock assertion that Latinos “should be natural Republicans,” or however the phrase goes, because they believe in God and family and traditional values. Putting aside the fact that their stupid assumptions are often wrong—exit polls showed that two thirds of Latinos support legalized abortion—this notion is both puerile and designed to reassure conservatives that they don’t really have to work that hard.

So sure, path to citizenship. Bravo, right. Although let us note that just because Hannity and Krauthammer and a few others say something doesn’t remotely mean that the Republican Party is going to do it. As I wrote the other day, the party will undoubtedly hope they can fool people with cynical symbolic gestures before it succumbs to reconsideration of actual policy. But if conservatives want people of color to take them seriously, they’d better start taking people of color seriously, and that’s something that will take a very, very, very long time.