In the frenzy of the Republican race for the presidential nomination, candidates have appealed to conservative populism through racially coded appeals evoking the dependency of the black “underclass” on government handouts. Late last year, former Speak of the House Newt Gingrich caused a commotion when he referred to child labor laws as “truly stupid.” He mused that poor children could develop the honest work ethic missing in their communities, and escape poverty, by replacing unionized janitors in their schools, and working as library, cafeteria and office assistants. The comments had little to do with race explicitly. Yet, his casual assumption that such children lack adult role models who work, or earn money legally, is one commonly attributed to the “underclass,” which made the target of his remarks clear. Gingrich stirred a toxic brew of anti-unionism, thinly veiled racism exempting children of color from protections against exploitation, and disdain for meaningfully combating the poverty that engulfs almost 40 percent of black children.
As if this race-inflected undertow was not strong enough, Gingrich labeled Barack Obama “the food stamp president,” and condescendingly offered to lecture a gathering of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on why the black community should “demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” The episode not only illustrated Republican-based animosity toward a program that has saved millions, across race, from food insecurity; it also crudely bound the president, and African Americans more generally, to a means-tested program popularly associated with stereotypes of black indolence. It helped catapult Gingrich to victory during the recent South Carolina Republican primary, but he has not been the only one to use this rhetoric. Fellow GOP contender Rick Santorum made similar remarks linking welfare dependency and African Americans, though unlike Gingrich he denied them. Not to be outdone, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, also castigated Obama for supplanting a “merit-based society with an entitlement society” – this from a multimillionaire who possesses his own deep sense of entitlement to the White House, indifferent to the fact that large portions of his own party reject him. The former Massachusetts governor, still glowing from his victory in the Florida primary, has commented openly that his campaign will not concern itself with the “very poor” at all. Even the only black candidate in the Republican field, Herman Cain, blamed the unemployed for their own predicament. This was less an irony than an illustration of the adaptability of “underclass” language across racial and class contexts.
Without ever using the term openly, GOP hopefuls have wielded “underclass” phraseology to attack a broad array of the populace clamoring for a more just social contract. It has, among other things, fueled opposition to public spending and jobs programs that would benefit both working-class and middle-class Americans. No matter who garners the Republican nomination, a central campaign message already has crystallized: You may be jobless, you may have lost your savings and your home may be in foreclosure, but the president’s policies benefit the “undeserving” poor, who are culturally and morally unlike you. Summoning the imagery of “underclass” debasement speaks to the GOP’s racial politics, but it also demonstrates how popular ideas about class, poverty, and government policy operate through racial inference. For labor historians and working-class studies scholars, the current campaign rhetoric demonstrates that the long career of the black “underclass” has to be acknowledged in our analyses and addressed in our prescriptions for change.
The “underclass” entered popular usage in the 1970s to describe a visible urban population afflicted by deepening conditions of “hardcore” unemployment. It became, according to Adolph Reed, Jr., “the central representation of poverty in American society,” and was employed primarily to characterize those fastened to the lowest rungs of the black working class. Functioning more as an ideological device than a real sociological category, the “underclass” literally colored public policy exchanges. It was a vehicle for shifting attention away from structural inequality to the cultural pathology of the poor: The “underclass” existed because of dysfunctional values, criminal deviance, pathological behavior (e.g., out-of-wedlock births and female-headed households), and reliance on government. Accordingly, this was a problem that social welfare expenditures could not remedy. Such expenditures, in fact, only reinforced “underclass” dependence. This had the effect of vilifying the poorest strata of working-class African Americans among middle-class whites and blacks alike, stigmatizing them in the imagination of other sectors of the working class, isolating them in public policy, and justifying measures that have eroded income, social mobility, and economic security for all.
By equating social welfare with dependency and – more implicitly – blackness, the “underclass” has literally colored discussions of social policy, inviting people of across social class to share in a culture of antagonism to the social safety net. This was a key component of the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, and it fed a campaign against the legacies of the 1930s New Deal and the 1960s Great Society, especially against government employees providing public services. It also prompted a liberal retreat from racial and economic justice, as Democratic strategists distanced their party nationally from close affiliation with the black working poor. The consequence has been what historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann calls a “punitive turn” in public policy under a succession of Republican and Democratic presidents. Of course, this punishment has spared government welfare to corporate entities, in the form of tax cuts and deregulation.
For the so-called “underclass,” decades of austerity have transformed many black working-class communities into armed encampments, fostered mass incarceration, and dismantled Aid to Families with Dependent Children in the name of “welfare reform.” At the state level, this has led to attempts in Michigan and more recently Florida to require Temporary Aid to Needy Families applicants to pass drug tests before receiving benefits. Not only do they threaten Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures, but such policies begin with the premise that the working poor are more apt to use illicit drugs more than other groups receiving forms of public assistance. This has paralleled a general offensive against the wages, benefits, and collective bargaining rights of broad swaths of working-class Americans – as in the use of unpaid “workfare” employees and prison laborers to supplant union labor, and in continuing attacks on public sector workers (among whom African Americans are employed in disproportionate numbers). “Attacks on the poor,” working-class studies scholar Michael Zweig reminds us, “are attacks on the working class.” From this perspective, the brutal federal indifference to black suffering during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina crisis, for instance, was not just an embodiment of racism, but also a culmination of a general assault on working people.
Protests by public workers in the Midwest, and “Occupy” movements on the East and West coasts may signal the renewal of a transformative working class-oriented activism. For this to occur, though, the black “underclass,” which has been a crucial part of the baggage of U.S. social welfare policy, has to be critically unpacked and put away. Working-class studies scholars are among those best positioned to accomplish this. But combating the vilification of poor people of color requires more than substituting a viewpoint that renders them objects of pity, or reduces them to appendages of the “respectable” working class. Rather, we have to claim the “underclass” as part of a diverse working class (including women on public assistance, ex-felons, and immigrant laborers), viewed from the validity of the black poor’s own outlooks and experiences. The racially suggestive insults hurled at the poor, and used to undermine all notions of social security, is a warning that imagining the U.S. working class in the twenty-first century has to be inclusive – for the sake of the “underclass,” and everyone else’s.
Clarence Lang is an Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas and author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75 (University of Michigan Press).