Virginia Elections

How to Get a White Vote

When E.W. Jackson, the GOP's man for Virginia Lt. Gov., says Medicaid is worse than slavery, he’s not pandering to blacks—but to white conservatives, writes Jamelle Bouie.

To say that E.W. Jackson is controversial is to make a huge understatement. In the short time he’s been the Virginia Republican Party’s candidate for lieutenant governor, a wide array of comments and remarks have surfaced.

They’ve ranged from the absurd—denouncing the Democrat Party for “an unholy alliance between certain so-called civil-rights leaders and Planned Parenthood, which has killed unborn black babies by the tens of millions”—to the outright offensive, like when he attacked LGBT Americans as “sick people psychologically, mentally, and emotionally,” calling them more destructive than the Ku Klux Klan and other groups that terrorized and murdered black Americans throughout the Jim Crow period.

His most recent statement concerns his disdain for the anti-poverty programs passed by President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. During a rally in Newport News, Virginia—just a few miles from his stomping grounds of Chesapeake—he told a Republican crowd that Great Society programs like Medicare and Medicaid are to blame for today’s problems among black families. “[T]he programs that began in the ’60s, the programs that began to tell women that ‘you don’t need a man in the home, the government will take care of you,’ and began to tell men, ‘you don’t need to be in the home, the government will take care of this woman and take care of these children.’ That’s when the black family began to deteriorate.”

In fact, Jackson argues, these programs are even worse than slavery. “It wasn’t slavery that did that,” he said. “It was government that did that, trying to solve problems that only God can solve and that only we as human beings can solve.”

Now, it’s obvious that Jackson needs a better history teacher. If we know anything about American slavery—and we know a lot—it’s that it required the dismantling of black families. At any given time, countless people were severed from their husbands, wives, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and every other relation under the sun.

Families were in a better position to stay together after emancipation, but that was complicated by an economic system that forced blacks into peonage and required labor from both parents. Familial instability has a long history in the black community, and contra E.W. Jackson, it has little to do with the presence of anti-poverty programs. To quote Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-cited report on the state of African-American families in the 1960s, this instability is the “fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which” the black community “has been subjected over the past three centuries.”

In fairness to Jackson, however, he isn’t alone in this proscription. Among the men and women who trumpet themselves as “black conservatives”—a category distinct from blacks who hold conservative views—this rhetoric is common, approaching banal. In her 2003 book Uncle Sam’s Plantation, for example, Star Parker, the Los Angeles-based activist who ran an unsuccessful race for the House of Representatives in 2010, denounces the “welfare system” as a cage that “enslaves” lower-income African-Americans. Likewise, during his 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Georgia businessman Herman Cain urged blacks to leave the “Democrat plantation.” Social-welfare programs, he said, were “liberal economic enslavement,” the 21st-century counterpart to actual physical enslavement.

To a certain extent, it should be said, Cain was riffing off former Florida representative Allen West, who promised to lead black voters “away from the plantation,” describing himself as a “modern-day Harriet Tubman,” and attacking black congressional leaders as “overseers over that plantation.”

Indeed, if you wanted to watch two hours of this rhetoric from a large assortment of black conservatives—including Thomas Sowell, Alveda King, and the more obscure Erik Rush—you could rent (or stream) Runaway Slave, a documentary from Rev. C.L. Bryant, a conservative Baptist minister who aims “to free the black community from the slavery of tyranny and progressive policies.” Echoing E.W. Jackson, one black conservative in the film says, “The worst thing that could have happened to our community is Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.”

There you go.

All of this raises a question: why talk in these terms? If the goal is to pull black voters away from the Democratic Party—or at least sow the seeds of doubt—there’s nothing to gain from comparing social programs to slavery, and the party itself to a plantation. Not only is it a nonsense analogy, but it’s a not-so-subtle attack on the agency of black voters. They haven’t chosen the Democratic Party, they’re simply unable—and incapable—of doing anything else.

But that assumes a (relatively) honest motivation—political engagement. The other possibility is far more cynical; Jackson and others aren’t trying to appeal to blacks as much as they are talking to white conservatives. Since Barack Obama entered office four years ago, there’s been a near-parade of vocal black conservatives who have defined themselves in opposition to the president. Cain called himself a “real black man,” and more recently, Dr. Ben Carson won wide acclaim (and a speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference) for lecturing President Obama on “moral decay” and “fiscal irresponsibility” at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast. Overwhelmingly, their audiences have been older white conservatives, who almost always respond with incredible enthusiasm to their presence.

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At the nominating convention of the Virginia Republican Party, for instance, Jackson received rapturous applause for his declaration of nonhyphenated American identity, “I am not an African-American. I am an American!” And when I saw Cain at the right-wing Values Voter Summit in 2011, the crowd was at their most frenzied when the former pizza mogul yelled that he was “not angry,” presumably contrasting himself with other blacks.

There is a book’s worth of material in analyzing the relationship of these figures to the right-wing base, but it suffices to say this: to a large number of white conservatives, accusations of racism are one of the worst things you can do in politics (see Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s reaction to criticism of his Howard speech). In some sense, their embrace of self-described black conservatives can be seen as a prophylactic measure. “How can we be racist,” they seem to be asking, “When we support people who look like this?”

“As far as questions go, it’s one that answers itself.”