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.
There it is. The Macomb County buzz word for welfare, a synonym that rests on the tongues of the white middle class like sour milk. Men like Miller and Benson don't use the N-word and they don't hate (disclosure: I grew up with Miller, who now lives in Macomb County): For a five-figure salary and overtime, Miller risks his life fighting fires in a black neighborhood just south of 8 Mile Road. But Benson casually overestimated the black unemployment rate in Detroit by more than 10 percentage points, and both he and Miller will talk your ear off about welfare cheats.
"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."
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.
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."
Sweaty White Laborer = That's Me!
"You Wouldn't Have to Work" = Blacks Wouldn't Have to Work
"They Just Send Your Welfare Check …" = They Just Give Your Pay Away to Lazy Blacks
"Plain Old Welfare" = Remember Those Welfare Queens? They're Back.
Before explaining why these tactics work (and why Romney's team knows, or should know, they are playing the race card), let's quickly deal with this fact: The ad is wrong. As countless impartial fact-checkers have noted, the Obama administration memo cited by the Romney team actually gives states flexibility to find better ways of getting welfare recipients into jobs.
Why ignore fact-checkers? First, internal GOP polling and focus groups offer convincing evidence that the welfare ad is hurting Obama. Second, the welfare issue, generally speaking, triggers anger in white blue-collar voters that is easily directed toward Democrats. This information comes from senior GOP strategists who have worked both for President Bush and Romney. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution.
Furthermore, a senior GOP pollster said he has shared with the Romney camp surveys showing that white working-class voters who backed Obama in 2008 have moved to Romney in recent weeks "almost certainly because of the welfare ad. We're talking a (percentage) point or two, but that could be significant."
More broadly, racial prejudices and tensions are a factor in many voters' decisions.
In the final months of Obama's history-making 2008 campaign, The Associated Press conducted a series of polls and surveys that uncovered deep-seated racial misgivings costing Obama significant votes. The study, conducted with Stanford University, suggested that the percentage of voters who might reject Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the difference between the margin of President Bush's 2004 victory – about 2.5 percentage points.
Also in 2008, an AP-Yahoo News poll found one-third of white Democrats harbored negative views toward blacks—many calling them "lazy," "violent," or responsible for their own troubles. (Disclosure: I was AP's Washington bureau chief and helped coordinate the polls.)
A remarkable piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in my sister publication, The Atlantic, cites several studies linking negative racial attitudes to voting behavior. Coates writes: "The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being "clean" (as Joe Biden once labeled him) – and yet indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches."
Knowing all this, and with deep personal roots in Detroit's racial maw, I felt on firm ground Tuesday asking Ron Kaufman, a Romney adviser, why the campaign was playing the race card in places like Macomb County.
"I couldn't disagree more," Kaufman replied.
"You know an ad like that touches a racial button," I said.
"No it doesn't," Kaufman replied. "I don't agree with you at all."
Kaufman who I've known and respected for years, accused me of playing the race card – a fair point, strictly speaking, because I raised the question in a public setting: a joint interview with CBS' John Dickerson before a large audience and live-streamed.
Still, Romney and his advisors stand by an ad they know is wrong – or, at the very least, they are carelessly ignoring the facts. That ad is exploiting the worst instincts of white voters – as predicted and substantiated by the Republican Party's own polling.
That leaves one inescapable conclusion: The Romney campaign is either recklessly ignorant of the facts, some of which they possess – or it is lying about why (and how) it is playing the race card.
This article appears in the August 30, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.