In the British original of The Office the main protagonist, David Brent (US reincarnation: Michael Scott), wistfully recalls a tender moment during his favorite war film, The Dam Busters, involving the hero pilot, Wing Commander Guy Gibson. “Before he goes into battle, he’s playin’ with his dog,” says Brent.
“Nigger,” says his sidekick, Gareth (Dwight in the States), recalling with glee the name of the dog.
Brent flinches, eager to mitigate the slur. “Yeah!… it was the ’40s,” he says, “before racism was bad.”
The problem with the illusion of a postracial society is that at almost any moment the systemic nature of racism, its legacy, methods and impulses, might have to be rediscovered and restated as though for the first time. If the problem has gone away, those who point it out or claim to experience it are, by definition, living in the past. Those who witness it in action must be imagining things. Those who practice it are either misunderstood or maligned.
So it has been these past few weeks with Republicans on the stump, campaigning as though in a time “before racism was bad,” when Rick Perry’s family had a hunting lodge known as Niggerhead and white people could just run their mouth without consequences. In Sioux City, Iowa, Rick Santorum was asked a question about foreign influence on the economy. As he meandered incoherently through his answer, he came out with this gem:
“I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.”
“Right,” said one audience member, as another woman nodded.
“And provide for themselves and their families,” Santorum added, to applause. “The best way to do that is to get the manufacturing sector of the economy rolling again.”
The black population of Sioux City is 2.9 percent. In Woodbury County, in which Sioux City sits, 13 percent of the people are on food stamps, an increase of 26 percent since 2007, with nine times as many whites as blacks using them.
Just a few days later, in Plymouth, New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich told a crowd, “I will go to the NAACP convention and explain to the African-American community why they should demand paychecks…[instead of] food stamps.” African-Americans make up 0.8 percent of Plymouth’s population. Food stamp use in Grafton County is 6 percent—a 48 percent increase since 2007.
And then there’s Ron Paul, who would like to repeal civil rights legislation and who once claimed that “order was only restored in LA [after the Rodney King riots] when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.” Or at least newsletters bearing his name did—newsletters he paid for and once defended. Paul now claims that they had nothing to do with him.