Aunt Jemima and the 47%

Governor Mitt Romney’s closed-door spiel about the 47% of Americans who belong to the looters and moochers club was ridiculous for more reasons than I can name in a concise fashion. Luckily, the blogosphere had the time of their lives with that nonsense and the story gobbled up considerable time on the TV. But it struck me as I was doing some reading for school that there’s another angle to the 47% fiasco that I hadn’t seen elsewhere.

It’s pretty obvious once you understand Aunt Jemima.

Oh, but so, in case you missed it, here’s what happened with poor Ole’ Mitt:

Romney’s talking to a bunch of ungodly wealthy donors at a closed-to-the-media fundraiser. Speaking of the Americans who support POTUS Obama, Romney says

There are 47% who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing.

He continues, saying that his “job is not to worry about those people” because he could “never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Why 47%?

Well, presumably he’s referring to the 47% of Americans who do not pay Federal Income Tax.

That’s a relatively well-known statistic, but the story Romney was telling to his supporters doesn’t quite follow from the statistic. So the first major problem with those comments was that they were simply not true, which is never a good place to start.

But, hey, post-truth politics, right? What really matters, more so than truth, is the question, “what story are we selling and will it win us an election?”

Briefly, no. It is an interesting story, though.

Governor Romney was describing a Manichean political cosmology in which the forces of good and evil are neatly divided into two competing camps. The good guys are economically-independent, socially conservative Republicans. The bad guys are a coalition of feckless moochers who are dependent on the government for their survival. They vote Democratic and a disproportionate amount of them are racial minorities. In short, national politics is a battle between productive citizens and those in our ranks who want to vote themselves “free stuff.” There’s your story.

It’s an exercise in crude stereotyping almost completely removed from reality. Really what happened is that someone found the statistic “47% of Americans pay no Federal Income Tax” and then they plugged it into the mind of Ayn Rand.

So now we have a generalized image of part of the American electorate. They’re moochers sucking the life-blood from honest, productive Americans. If we let them hold power we’ll be on a slippery slope towards despotic communism, or something.

What’s interesting is that this electoral stereotype directly contradicts another popular electoral stereotype–that of the blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth laborer.

As it turns out, the 47% is made up of a whole bunch of people most folks would never identify as stereotypical welfare recipients. The ranks of the 47% include elderly retirees and students–both of whom earn no income and thus pay no income tax. Another of the 47%’s key constituencies is low-wage laborers. A decent number of these households represent a family in which  a wage earner works 40+ hours per week to support their family. They pay nearly every tax under the sun, but because of their low wages and tax deductions (perhaps for mortgage interest or child tax credits) they do not pay Federal Income Tax.

So they’re part of this 47%, but a lot of them would also probably fit into our amorphous category of middle class.

Aunt Jemima helps us understand how it is that one group of people could fall into two decidedly different categories.

Emilie Townes, a womanist ethicist, writes about the ways in which stereotypes are selectively applied to maintain unjust social orders. She focuses specifically on two popular stereotypes of Black American women–“Mammy” (aka Aunt Jemima) and “The Black Matriarch” (aka The Welfare Queen).

Townes writes that “Mammy and her morphed twin Aunt Jemima have historically represented the sexual and maternal embodiment of ideal Black womanhood—a perfect mother (to white children), a perfect slave to all.”  The Black Matriarch, on the other hand, is “the domineering female head of the Black family in the United States” who “represents the cause for all social problems because of her singleness and her blackness and her children. At times she is also called the Welfare Queen.”

Townes notes that “[t]he Black Matriarch can also be the Mammy at the same time.” In so far as a Black woman is to someone a good nanny or worker, she is a Mammy. But from another perspective, since she is working too much to attend to her children, she is a failed Black Matriarch. So these competing stereotypes are applied contextually in such a way as to ideologically pigeon hole the concerns and situations of Black women.

Something similar is happening with the low-wage workers who make up part of the 47% Are they salt-of-the-earth, honest laborers or are they moocher parasites? They are both. Their contextual identity depends entirely on the whims and political agendas of the powerful people who have decided to rope them into their grand narrative.

Any stereotype–whether it be that of The Black Matriarch or Mammy or the 47%– is an ideological distortion. These sorts of stereotypes usually serve the interests of the folks who throw them around at the expense of those who supposedly make up the stereotype’s ranks.

We should always be suspicious of politicians, but we should run like hell whenever they start making sweeping generalizations about sub-sections of our population.



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