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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.

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