(The Root) — One of the earliest moments I remember of the awful spiritual and emotional disconnect of American politics was when President Ronald Reagan got shot in 1981. When I got home, my sister and I discussed it with our mother. Then we switched on the news.
It turned out that in my hometown of Baltimore, some students cheered when school officials announced that the president had been shot. This wasn't the only case of that reaction. Students also cheered in Tulsa, Okla.; Minnesota; Chicago; and New Orleans.
I grew up in a family that emphasized doing the right thing and went to church every week, and I had morally strong and educationally excellent teachers. No clapping broke out in my school. But somehow, even at the age of 11, I understood that there was more to this than kids behaving badly.
This was the era of government cheese and trickle-down economics. Baltimore was majority black, many citizens were poor or just barely making it and plenty of kids lined up for free lunches. We understood enough of the political rhetoric of the time to know that people who looked like us were considered the enemy — the enemy of the "shining city on the hill" that Reagan touted.
Even when you can rationalize things away ("I don't get free lunch"; "I'm not on food stamps"; "Even if I am, I'm working"; "Even if I'm not working, I'm still giving back to my community and I'll get a job soon"), knowing that you are perceived as the enemy of your own nation can turn a key in your heart, shutting off empathy because none has been given you in return.
The class warfare of the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan campaign seems designed to exacerbate an us-versus-them mentality that will spark in some voters an easy willingness to turn political code into racial code.
Romney, for example, chides President Obama for fostering a "culture of dependency." Why does no one talk about the culture of dependency when speaking of the much larger individual goodies doled out to wealthy taxpayers who can deduct (let's take Romney's family as an example) $70,000 for a dressage horse and end up paying a 13.9 percent tax rate? What about the culture of dependency when it comes to farm subsidies, or business tax breaks that leave massive companies — including Pepco, DuPont, Navstar and Corning — paying no (or even negative) taxes?
The culture of dependency is contextualized around one group of people: lower-income Americans. And it's overlaid with racial subtext, based on years of the Southern strategy-meets-political urban warfare. It saddens me to see it, and saddens me even more to know that this is just the beginning of a run-up to Election Day during which more attacks will target low-income Americans and use race as a backdrop (though, speaking factually, more white Americans get government assistance than blacks).
As for cheering at others' pain, I didn't condone it in the Reagan years, and I don't want to see it again. But it seems to me that the Ryan budget, if implemented, will bring the pain — not only to communities of color, but also to many of the aging Tea Party members who rely on Social Security and Medicare. (Ryan, it should be noted, went to college using Social Security death benefits after his father passed away.) Though I may disagree with those members of the political right on many issues, I don't want to see them hurt. We can't afford to be at each other's throat. Will "Ryanomics" provoke a political form of the Hunger Games, American style?
Farai Chideya is a journalist, author and Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.