Two years ago, as I was working on a feature about club members doling out winter clothes and other goods to poor and homeless people, one woman appointed herself as the guardian of the giveaway.
She pointed out one guy who chose a coat, and whispered that he probably was going to sell it. She leveled a similar accusation at another taker. And when one of the women in the club gave a package of disposable diapers to another fellow, she pulled her to the side and said: “I know him, and he ain’t got no baby!”
To which the annoyed club member replied, “Well, did you ever think that maybe he knows someone who does?”
Now it could be that this woman seriously thought she was being helpful. But I didn’t get that.
What I got was that her tattling was her way of establishing some sense of moral superiority over all the poor, mostly black people who lined up to get donated items; to show that as toothless and tattered as she was, she still wasn’t one of “them.”
And she typifies the kind of white voter that GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney is currently trying to score points with by conjuring images about lazy black people looking for handouts and lying about President Obama weakening welfare eligibility rules.
He’s hoping that a lot of them are like the woman at the giveaway; poor, white people who cling to sanctimony to distinguish themselves from poor black people in the same way that they once used Jim Crow to feel superior to all black people.
And that’s a shame.
Romney, in a desperate bid to move the polls in his direction, has apparently decided to dust off the old, racial resentment playbook written by Lee Atwater, who managed George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign. Atwater, who died in 1991, came up with the infamous Willie Horton ad – a black convicted murderer who raped a woman and robbed her fiancé while out on furlough – to scare people into not voting for the Democratic contender, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
Dukakis, however, didn’t support furloughs for murderers. Yet Romney’s welfare ads reek of the same distortions.
For example, in one ad Romney says that “Under Obama’s plan (for welfare) you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you a welfare check.”
That’s a lie.
Says Politifact.com, the Tampa Bay Times Pulitzer-Prize winning fact checking website: “That’s a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them."
What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs — HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law…In fact, it says the new policy is “designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."
The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance.
Yet that’s exactly what Romney is trying to do– or else he wouldn’t be bringing up welfare at all. I mean, why even go there?
He’s going there because he’s hoping that the white, working class voters he’s trying to reach will respond to pettiness and stereotypes instead of facts. Romney’s hoping that they’ll believe that a black president is giving stuff to undeserving black people.
He’s hoping to fire up voters who have the mentality of the woman at the coat giveaway; white people who get their nerves all in a knot over someone getting a used coat or some diapers, or people who buy steaks with food stamps, yet they don’t raise an eyebrow over rules that allow wealthy farmers to collect billions in taxpayer subsidies each year.
It’s a shame that Romney believed he had to stoop to this. But it’s even more shameful that some people will actually buy his welfare distortions.
Especially if the truth won’t make them feel as superior as the lies.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her at tonyaajw@twitter.