"I think we are going to do very, very well here in Tennessee."
According to a recent MTSU poll, Santorum commands a 21 point lead over Mitt Romney in the state of Tennessee, despite Romney's endorsement by the governor, not to mention his influential and moneyed family. With six days until the March 6 Super Tuesday primary, I thought it would be interesting (read: depressing as hell) to pair some new data on the economic plight of the state's African-American population with certain myths propagated by Santorum as it relates to, well, reality.
As this report yesterday by Nashville Business Journal reveals, blacks in Nashville earn 42 percent less than their white counterparts. These numbers, as one in touch with this "reality" might expect, shouldn't be surprising either, and are reflective of how the 2008 economic collapse hit minorities the hardest.
On Numbers, a Nashville Business Journal affiliate, compared per capita incomes for whites and blacks in the 587 metropolitan and micropolitan areas where at least 2 percent of the residents are black. Income data came from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey.
Income disparity in Memphis is among the highest in the country, with an income gap ranked 474th in the country. Black residents in Memphis earn, on average, 45.9 percent of what white residents earn.
Blacks in Jackson earn 53 percent of their white counterparts. The rate stands at 58 percent in Nashville, 59 percent in Chattanooga and 61 percent in Knoxville.
Yet when faced with these facts, the myths of white American bootstrap-pulling — and its corollary, the black Welfare Queen — must remain steadfast, even after four years of wealth-spreading by a black president. Just ask Santorum.
In early January, Santorum spoke to a crowd at a coffee shop in Sioux City, Iowa, as part of the media-manufactured drama surrounding that state's caucuses. What the 100 or so people gathered heard Santorum say, they seemed to like.
From NPR (bold emphasis Pith's) :
"Having that strong foundation of the faith and family allows America to be in a position where we can be more free," Santorum says. "We can be free because we are good decent moral people."
For Santorum that means cutting government regulation. Making Americans less dependent on government aid. Fewer people getting food stamps, Medicaid and other forms of federal assistance — especially one group.
"I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money," Santorum begins. "I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families."
Santorum did not elaborate on why he singled out blacks who rely on federal assistance. The voters here didn't seem to care.
Despite the fact that most people on welfare in Iowa are white, the state ultimately went for Santorum by a narrow margin over Romney, perhaps as a result of this very thing: Plain-spoken xenophobic rhetoric that eschews the coded language of the Southern Strategy while connecting with white voters about their fears of lost status in an increasingly non-white country.
It's telling when voters don't even need the coded language anymore. Such is the ethos among a voting bloc who continue to find respite in an ideology wherein the just and the true are pitted against the designs of an elitist black Kenyan Voldemort who defiles 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with affirmative actions and stimuluses and arugulas and hand-outs-not-hand-ups. Never mind that the incarceration rates for African-Americans has been compared to a new form of slavery, or that a black businessman in Memphis earns nearly less than half the income of a white businessman for doing the same job: Keep your goddamned government hands out of my Medicare!
I have too many white liberal friends who have, at one time or another throughout the cannibal's orgy of GOP primary season, said something to the effect that "It scares me/I can't believe that lots of people support Rick Santorum." This somehow implies that (1) they cannot fathom how actual human beings can have their darkest fears successfully manipulated by a politician; (2) that Santorum's toxic blend of religious megalomania and cultural xenophobia actually appeals to sizable swaths of the voting populace is somehow a "new thing"; and (3) that if he was a marginal candidate with only little tangible support then they could go back to watching Downton Abbey without such thoughts nagging at the back of their minds. That we're living in a city known (charmingly?) as both the Buckle of the Bible Belt and the Protestant Vatican somehow escapes them. Or maybe they've never been to the Belle Meade Country Club for a game on the back nine.
Despite all of our collective white guilt, we forget too easily that supporting politicians like Rick Santorum is what Tennessee does very, very well.
Just go back to 2006, when the campaign of then-candidate Bob Corker distanced itself from an attack ad that attempted to imply that his racially mixed opponent, Harold Ford, Jr., was some kind of nubian bull-stud. During that same race, a radio ad was also released that intoned sounds of tribal drums whenever Ford's name was mentioned. The race-baiting seemed to work, as Corker eked to victory by 3 points.
Most interestingly, Ford's tack against Corker was to play up his own religiosity, frequently declaring his love for a mythological zombie at campaign stops with the kind of salesmanship that would make Billy Graham proud.
We now know that when those men were debating the finer points of being pro-life Christians, the poverty rate for children in Tennessee was skyrocketing. But Ford couldn't even pretend to be liberal, and attacked Corker by proxy of former Gov. Don Sundquist (whom Corker worked under) for proposing a state income tax. The same is true for Rep. Jim Cooper, whose masterful centrism shields him from the Bible Belt's whip-crack. Since the 1960s, a giant Skinner box has been placed over Tennessee and other Southern states for the express purpose of engineering a positive response to bullshit like Santorum's, wherein the fabled "real America" exists in direct biblical conflict with the stereotypical hedonistic Sodom of multicultural liberalism.
As a result, something like, for example, Tennessee's tax structure — and the institutional classism and racism it perpetuates — will hardly ever be discussed outside of advocacy circles, and never during an election. We're home to a particularly gruesome pair of consumption taxes that extract a disproportionate share of the wealth of lower income taxpayers than their more affluent (and statistically whiter) counterparts. But why should voters care about a trifling fact like that, especially if it called into question the taxless incomes for some of the state's (and the country's) wealthiest (and whitest) citizens? For that matter, why should Santorum's virulently anti-gay rhetoric matter, when the state's very own legislature is cut from the same homophobic cloth?
That's why you'll never hear Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum (the only front-running candidates who have campaigned in our fair state thus far) mention anything about the shameful levels of child poverty in Tennessee, why they won't address rampant race-based income inequality beyond a Norquist-approved plea for lower taxes and the elimination of nanny state niceties, why they'll never deviate from a script that's worked too well for decades. And they never will. To do so would be like complaining about the Grammys for its embrace of woman-beating Chris Brown: We love our bullshit too much in this country, and to give it up would be a complex bummer that would chafe against the hackneyed pageantry of the multibillion dollar business of modern campaigning and disrupt the carefully honed messaging that speaks loudest to the old white men whose votes matter most (and who have never heard of Rihanna in the first place).
To put it another way, a full quarter of the state's likely primary voters think the president is a Muslim — at least, 24 percent of them apparently do — and 31 percent of them "don't know" that the president isn't a Kenyan Voldemort. How could they then possibly be equipped to entertain a rational discussion of income inequality and classism? Boxed sets of The Wire?
So there should be nothing mysterious (or novel) about Tennessee voters' zealotry for a guy who says that America is under siege by satanic forces, that the incumbent president's supposed Christianity is a "phony theology," and a good many more categorically insane things about race and gender identity and women in the military. But remember, for 24 percent of us, America is under siege by demonic forces. President Obama isn't really a Christian. Allah willing, Rick Santorum is merely giving them what they've been conditioned to want, while an entire class of people remains in want of something they've been conditioned to never have.