A few months ago, I returned to my hometown of Detroit to understand why the American Dream is more alive for minorities than it is for blue-collar whites. I drove through my old eastside neighborhood, below 8 Mile Road, and into Macomb County, a racially charged suburb long identified with so-called Reagan Democrats.
At Linda’s Place at 9 Mile Road and Harper, where $2.99 gets you two eggs, hash browns, bacon, and an honest conversation about racial politics, I chatted with Detroit firefighter Dave Miller and his pal, contractor Benson Brundage. As it turned out, that breakfast-table conversation helps explain why (and how) Mitt Romney is playing the race card with his patently false welfare ad.
“Let’s talk about your polling,” Benson said. He grabbed from my hand an Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor survey showing that middle-class blacks and Hispanics are far more optimistic about their children’s future than are whites of the same economic status. “What do you think the unemployment rate is among blacks? In Detroit, it’s probably 40 percent. If the unemployment rate is that high, why is it that they are so optimistic about their future and the future of their children?”
Benson paused, heard no reply, and answered his own question.
“It’s a generational apathy,” Miller said, “and they keep getting more and more (apathetic) because they don’t have to work. If they sleep all day and free money …”
“ … Comes in the mail,” Benson said.
“… not in the mail anymore,” Miller said, “It’s in a magic card they can swipe.”
They poked at their egg yolks until Miller broke the silence. “I feel like a fool for not jumping on that shit and getting some (welfare) myself,” Miller said. “But I couldn’t sleep at night.”
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I share this story to crack the code – the subtle language of distrust and prejudice that whites use to communicate deep-set fears, and that cynical politicians translate into votes. Translating Miller and Benson:
“Subsidization” = Welfare
“Generational Apathy” = Lazy
“They Slept All Day” = Blacks Sleep All Day
“I Feel Like a Fool” = I’m Mad As Hell
Please understand that Miller and working-class whites like him have reason to be angry and cynical. First, life is tough and getting tougher for the shrinking middle class, regardless of race. Second, as the National Journal reported in the story involving Miller a year ago, minorities are steadily pushing their way into the middle class, which was once the province of whites.
The shift was most pronounced over the past decade, when 1.7 million Latinos joined the middle class and 1.5 million whites fell out.
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A poll this spring by the Pew Economic Mobility Project underscored how minorities and whites see their divergent economic trajectories. Whites earning between $25,000 and $75,000 per year were more than twice as likely as blacks in the same income range—and nearly twice as likely as Latinos—to say they had already achieved the American Dream. A majority of Latinos and a plurality of African-Americans say they expect to be making enough money 10 years from now to live the lifestyle they desire. A majority of whites consider that a pipe dream.
Working-class whites, in other words, are already more prosperous and secure than working-class minorities, but they’re less optimistic because they don’t believe they’re climbing anymore. They’re simply trying to hold on to what they’ve got, and see others grabbing at it.
Thanks to Romney, they see minorities grabbing at their way of life every day and all day in the inaccurate welfare ad. It opens with a picture of Bill Clinton (a man obsessed with Macomb County and Reagan Democrats) signing the 1996 welfare reform act, which shifted the benefits from indefinite government assistance to one pushing people into employment and self-reliance.
A leather-gloved white laborer wipes sweat from his forehead. “But on July 12,” the ad intones,” President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send your welfare check and “welfare to work” goes back to being plain old welfare.”