Ever since President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans have held a somewhat different view of government than many white Americans. For whites, especially southern whites, government represented an outside institution taking away their "property" and destroying their businesses. For Blacks, however, government represented an institution that rescued them from the shackles of slavery and finally gave them a taste of the freedom enjoyed by the rest of society.
The memory of Lincoln's policies kept African-Americans in his Republican Party for two generations. That didn't change until President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced a "New Deal" to pull the country out of the Great Depression with the help of vigorous government intervention. Once again, Black people signed on with the political party that was willing to use the government to help the people in times of crisis, and so they left the Republican Party in droves.
Racial segregation persisted with the help of both parties for another three decades until Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that once again used the government to protect the interests of the powerless. After Johnson stood up for us, African-Americans grew more loyal to the Democratic Party, while Republicans, on the other hand, launched a cynical but successful decades-long "Southern strategy" to recruit disaffected white voters into the GOP.
Given that history, when Republicans complain that the evil "government" is taking away their freedom, Black people know exactly what they really mean. Even though white people are the biggest beneficiaries of government assistance and welfare, rich Republicans who don't give a hoot about the middle-class have cleverly deployed racially coded language to convince some poor and working-class whites that supporting the government means supporting Black people.
Ronald Reagan even constructed a phony image of a Cadillac-driving welfare queen in the projects to convince middle-class white voters that their tax dollars were supporting lazy African-Americans on food stamps instead of bolstering wealthy defense contractors and mostly white senior citizens on Social Security and Medicare.
Now the GOP is at it again. Taking a page out of Reagan's playbook, Mitt Romney is attacking government and trying to convince working-class white Americans that giving tax cuts for the rich will magically create jobs for them too.
Of course, giving out billions of dollars in tax breaks to wealthy people like himself would blow a huge hole in the federal deficit, so Romney's got to pay for his plans by cutting money somewhere else. Thus he re-invents the evil straw man called "government" which is stealing all our money and causing all our problems.
What Romney doesn't want to tell you is where your government money really goes. Two-thirds of the federal budget goes to defense, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and interest on the debt. Only about 13 percent goes to so-called safety net programs, and 78 percent of that amount is spent on whites and other non-Blacks.
Republicans like Romney, the son of a wealthy business executive, love to talk about pulling themselves up from their bootstraps, but by attacking government and education, they're essentially making it harder for African-Americans to pull themselves up.
The unemployment rate for African-Americans stands at 13.6 percent. That's partly because cash-strapped state and local governments cut 280,000 workers last year. And that's also because of larger socioeconomic conditions Republicans never seem to address.
For many years, the only place where Blacks had a fair chance to get a job was in the military or the government. That's why Black workers are a third more likely than whites to be employed in the public sector that Romney wants to cut. Those government cuts are not just faceless bureaucrats at the IRS and DMV; they're real people we know. They're teachers, cops, firefighters, and even toll both operators. Many of them are our sisters and brothers, cousins and uncles, children and parents.
The best jobs policy is education. Americans with college degrees have a very low 3.9 percent unemployment rate. But unemployment stands at 13 percent for those without high school diplomas. Yet Romney wants to cut funding for education, which would help young people of all races go to college and make a living for themselves.
Billionaire and anti-union Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson has already spent $35 million of his own money on the Republican presidential campaign. When a rich guy spends that kind of money to affect an election, you can bet he's not trying to protect the middle class; he's trying to protect his own interests. But some middle-class white voters still don't get it. They're so busy buying the Republican spin about Blacks that they don't understand how the rich guys at the top in the GOP are simply exploiting them.
Come to think of it, maybe it's not a war on Black people they're waging, but a war on middle-class and working-class Americans, many of whom happen to be Black, but most of whom are actually white. The overwhelming majority of Black voters already get this. When middle-class white voters wake up, they'll see just whose side the GOP is really on.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He will also be providing political commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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