Dear Chris Hayes, The Human Face of the Republican Government Shutdown Should Not Be a Black Woman
Lashante Austin is a furloughed employee who works at the Statue of Liberty in New York City. Like 800,000 federal employees, she has been without a paycheck, is behind on her bills, and struggling to survive because the Republican Party has shutdown the United States government.
Lashante Austin is the human face of the most recent crisis orchestrated by the Republican Party. MSNBC's Chris Hayes featured her on last Thursday evening’s edition of "All In" as a way of reminding viewers that federal workers are not just political pawns. They are people with families, children, hopes, fears, worries, and dreams.
Chris Hayes made a reasonable assumption in his decision to feature Lashante Austin as a guest on his show: the American people would empathize with her economic struggles and pain.
However, Hayes' logic proceeded from a flawed prior.
Lashante Austin is black and she is female. For conservatives, she is the very embodiment of why the United States government should be drowned in the bathtub like a baby. The Tea Party GOP wants to punish and hurt Lashante Austin. Why? Because her body and personhood symbolize the bogeyman talking point known as “big government”.
Lashante Austin is a cue to the mythic welfare queen who helped Ronald Reagan (and others) win a presidential election. Mitt Romney deployed this narrative as well, where he suggested the Barack Obama was the “food stamp” president giving away money to lazy people of color. From the Southern Strategy in the 1960s onward, where Republican strategists under Nixon concocted a narrative that linked black people to “bad culture” and “government dependency”, the image of the black and brown female body has paid political dividends for the Right.
For example, the idea of a black female federal employee is part of a cultural imagination which includes stereotypes of lazy, inefficient, African-American employees at the DMV and post office who are “disrespectful” and lord their power over the public.
And if the comments on MSNBC's own site and elsewhere about Lashante Austin's struggles are an indication of the broader response to her story, then she is a lightning rod for resentment against federal employees, and a deep sense that non-whites and women who work for the government are unqualified for their jobs, overpaid, and should expect to be fired.
There is a politically strategic element in how the Tea Party GOP has been able to link hostility to people of color, the poor, and their effort to destroy government and the social safety net. Rooted in the triumphs of the civil rights movement, African-Americans support a robust federal government as a means of protecting their civil liberties. People of color are also over-represented among federal employees. Consequently, the Republican assault on the federal government accomplishes multiple goals.
First, it further marginalizes people of color by forcing them out of their jobs. The Republican Party is the United States’ de facto white political interest group and organization. The Democratic Party’s base is increasingly pluralistic and racially diverse. Thus, the government shutdown disproportionately hurts people of color and weakens them both materially and politically.
Second, the Tea Party GOP, which is now a Southern political party and the contemporary descendant of the Confederacy, can link black and brown people to food stamps and other government aid as a means of ginning up white voters’ support for cutting such programs. White people in Red State America are greatly hurt by cutting those programs as well. But, the Tea Party GOP can distract their white voting base from this fact by focusing their rage and resentment towards blacks and Latinos—instead of the plutocrats and the 1 percent.
The most visible embodiment of the link between white racial animus and the notion that people of color are uniquely dependent on the federal government, an entity which the Tea Party GOP wants to destroy, is seen in the political rhetoric used by conservatives to describe black people who support the Democratic Party, as well as the idea of a responsible and robust government that supports and nurtures positive liberty and freedom.
Conservatives and the Right-wing apparatus consistently suggest that Black Americans are stuck on a “Democratic plantation” and are uniquely “addicted” to the federal government.
Of course, such language is an abuse of history and the memories of the many millions killed by chattel slavery in the United States and the West. In the context of the government shutdown, such language is a reminder to the White Right and its supporters that black people are somehow uniquely connected to the United States government. Moreover, from this perspective, black Americans do not have full political agency and are just leeches and parasites on White America.
Government is viewed by conservatives first and foremost as an imposition on the liberties and rights and freedoms of White Americans. “States’ Rights” is shorthand for such a sentiment. Consequently, how better than to maximize the liberties and freedoms of white people than by limiting a federal government which is seen as unfairly protecting black and brown people?
Chris Hayes assumed empathy and sympathy in a society where little to none exists for people of color in general, and women of color specifically. Research in social psychology suggests that this is true, to varying degrees, among white conservatives, independents, and liberals.
For the Tea Party GOP, the hostility to Lashante Austin is especially strong, and Hayes’ efforts to put a human face—one which happens to be black and female on the government shutdown—is even more prone to backfiring because of how white racial resentment and colorblind racism holds power over conservatives and others in the post civil rights era. In all, the election of the country’s first black president has only increased racism’s hold, both overt and covert, among the White Right.
I am not arguing that we should surrender to the bigotry and use of symbolic and colorblind racism by the Tea Party GOP to mobilize its voters in support of policies which hurt the Common Good and the American people. However, we should be mindful of how the visuals and optics that are used by the media during the Tea Party GOP’s hostage taking of the United States government can either help or hurt the efforts to end this political crisis.
I have a bold suggestion. It is one that will be met with some upset and controversy. White people should be the human face of the shutdown of the United States government. When guests are needed to talk about how the Tea Party GOP is hurting the American people, there should be a white senior citizen, white soldier or veteran, white single mother, or white male government employee interviewed on television or radio.
To show the human pain of the government shutdown as profoundly impacting people of color is a deed that is unable to cross the empathy and sympathy gap which is the colorline in American society. The White Gaze has little to no use for the suffering and hurt experienced by black and brown people.
I feel Lashante Austin’s pain. Unfortunately, for others, Lashante Austin, a gainfully employed and hardworking federal employee, is just one step away from being a black welfare queen who lives by "sucking off the government tit" and “good hard-working” white people. The Republican Party has a well-tested playbook for fueling the destruction of the social safety net and the federal government, one that is in many ways dependent on mobilizing white racism and anti-black and brown bias.
Let’s put a white face on this crisis. It is easy for Republicans and the Right-wing media to spin a narrative where the shutdown is a noble act that punishes black and brown folks as part of “big government”, where they (and the poor and working classes) are ultimately just a group of “useless eaters.” The Republicans would have a much harder time of deploying such a meme if the faces of their victims were white, male, and perhaps even wrapped in the American flag.