Jeb Bush’s recent comments in South Carolina about Democrats getting black people to vote for them by promising them “free stuff” during election season is a powerful reminder that a leading Republican presidential candidate is woefully ignorant about contemporary race relations and the history that’s shaped the racial-justice struggle.
Ironically, the former governor of Florida’s statement echoed Mitt Romney’s infamous remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who longed for government handouts, said while discussing minority-voter outreach and the Republican Party.
During an interview with Fox News Sunday, Bush doubled down on his comments. “We need to make our case to African-American voters and to all voters that an aspiration message fixing a few complex things will allow people to rise up,” explained the Republican presidential hopeful. “That’s what people want. They don’t want free stuff. That was my point.”
Bush’s demonization of African Americans as a group whose loyalty to the Democratic Party has been purchased via big-government spending continues the Republican assault on black dignity and citizenship, a struggle marked by contemporary voting-rights battles taking place across the nation.
Black Americans have been the hardest-working and least-rewarded group in American history. African-American rates of employment, income and wealth pale in comparison with those of whites, the result of a long and continuous history of institutional racism that Bush simply ignores.
Racial insensitivity is a Bush family trait. George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, defeated Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988 by running the infamous Willie Horton ads that played upon national fears of black criminality and racial violence.
George W. Bush’s halting response to Hurricane Katrina inspired widespread criticism punctuated by Kanye West’s famous assertion that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Neither does his younger brother, apparently.
The most offensive part of Jeb Bush’s statement is that it’s rooted in a racist mythology about black folks that ignores our national history. Unpaid black labor literally built American and global capitalism. Slavery produced undreamed-of wealth that helped propel American financial, industrial and political institutions into undreamed-of power and privilege. African Americans were repaid for centuries of chattel slavery with Jim Crow segregation, lynching, imprisonment and poverty.
Jeb Bush’s statement perpetuates this tragic history through willful ignorance that casts black folks as an ignorant and lazy mass of people who are dependent on government largesse for their existence.
Bush and other Republican presidential hopefuls who’ve embraced a toxic message of racial intolerance robust enough to make Tea Party advocates and Birthers proud have touted this false narrative.
Such comments also serve as coded messages to white voters convinced that President Barack Obama’s entire presidency has both been illegitimate (by virtue of his supposedly being born in Kenya) and unfairly discriminated against the white populace by giving black folks special treatment.
The Republican Party’s political extremism and racial blinders have become mainstream enough that Jeb Bush—who opposes immigration reform and the Affordable Care Act—is considered a political moderate. This tragedy turns into farce when these same advocates of anti-black and anti-poor public policy claim to want to be “inclusive” and reach out to racial minorities.
Contemporary struggles for civil rights have reached a fever pitch in the country, highlighted by national movements to end racial oppression in the criminal-justice system, housing, public schools and all sectors of American society. This is the reality that black people live with every day, and one that Jeb Bush has yet to encounter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.