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Friday, April 02, 2004

Unemployment and the South

One of the big questions that perplexes Democrats is that why it is that white Southerners so consistently vote against their own economic interests. A lot of reasons are bandied around, and most have validity. Southerners listen to more radio; Southerners are more old-fashioned; Southerners are more religious. And, while it's unpleasant to say so, the race issue is a big vote winner for the Republicans. It worked so well to switch Southern whites over to the party, they have expanded into using inflammatory rhetoric against Hispanics (increasingly indistinguishable from "illegal immigrants") to start getting votes in the Southwest. Still, it's hard to really believe that animosity towards racial minorities is so strong that it compels people to vote against their own economic interests. So, the confusion continues.
Well, a big clue to the whole mystery came to me listening to NPR in the car today. The big story, of course, is that unemployment didn't go up as much as it has been going up. Of course, since the media is in a constant race away from the word "liberal", this was reported straightforwardly as a victory for Bush's economic plan. Anyway, in batting the numbers around, one number jumped out at me. While overall unemployment didn't rise because of a run on McJobs, the unemployment rate for blacks went up even more, and is now over 10%.
10%--one in every ten black people who is actively looking for a job (mind you, not the ones who gave up or the ones who would like a job but can't find transportation or childcare or the ones who haven't found a real job but are surviving off odd jobs) cannot find one. Now, the overall unemployment rate is 5.7%. Blacks aren't unemployed at twice the rate of the average, yet, but give it a couple go-arounds of unemployment overall holding steady and blacks continuing to lose work, and we'll get there.
White Southerners do think they are voting their own economic interests. Again, it helps to understand the complex meanings behind simple-seeming buzzwords. "Affirmative action" and "quotas" are such buzzwords. Behind those phrases are worlds of meaning. But to keep it quite simple, those words are a good way for the Republicans to promise their voters that the unemployment rate may go up or go down, but by aggressively going against any attempt by racial minorities to better their economic lot, there will be a cushion of people between white voters and losing jobs.
What's particularly damaging about the "cushion" of black unemployment is that a lot of people who wouldn't really otherwise be racist find themselves feeling that it needs to exist. And our society reflects it. Any attempt to take a few cards out of the deck stacked against blacks is protested vehmently, everything from affirmative action to attempts to make public schools more equitable in their funding.
I have no idea how to counteract the Republican's well-built propaganda machine designed to make people feel that in order for their race to prosper, another must suffer. Pointing out that this or that is "racist" and trying to shame people doesn't really go very far; when Grand Dragons of the KKK bristle at the mere suggestion that they are racist, the word has lost much of its meaning.


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