I was in the audience at Mitt Romney's address to the NAACP convention this week, when he told us, a room full of informed, politically engaged African Americans, "If you want a president who will make things better in the African American community, you are looking at him."
I was not in the audience later that evening when Romney told a group of Montana Republican donors what he thought of those at the 103rd Annual NAACP convention who booed his promise to bring down the Affordable Care Act: "If they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy -- more free stuff. But don't forget nothing is really free."
The contrast between those two speeches tells a lot about the right's relationship with the African American community. Romney is echoing generations of right-wing politicians who have told white Americans that their Black neighbors, friends, co-workers, colleagues, even family members have an insatiable appetite for "free stuff" from the government. Meanwhile, they have told African Americans that we are the ones hurting our own community --- that if we "want a president who will make things better in the African American community," we're missing the obvious choice.
The problem with this kind of talk is not just that it's condescending and that it exploits and widens racial distrust -- though those are certainly big problems. The problem is that the core lie buried in this rhetoric has made its way into countless federal policies -- policies that cheat hard-working Americans of all races.
Our current federal budget deficit didn't come from "free stuff" for struggling Americans -- "stuff" like food stamps or necessary medical care. It came from "free stuff" for giant corporations and the wealthy -- enormous tax cuts for the fortunate and empty promises of trickle-down wealth for the rest of us.
The disparity in the distribution of "free stuff" in America has had glaring results: as the very wealthiest get wealthier the number of Americans struggling to make it in the middle class is growing. Some not only don't see this as a problem, they accuse those of us who want to fix it of harboring "envy." They want us to believe that low-income minorities are sapping everybody else of their tax dollars...and when we point out where tax dollars are really going they just say that we're jealous.
It's particularly galling to hear this argument applied to the Affordable Care Act, whose individual mandate is built on an ethic of personal responsibility. Supporters of health care reform don't want "free stuff." We want our friends, neighbors, family members, co-workers and colleagues who are uninsured or underinsured to be able to participate in preventive measures to stay healthy and go to the doctor when they're sick.
I've had enough of politicians telling me that Americans trying to feed their families through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (i.e. food stamps) -- only about a third of whom are African Americans -- are destroying the country while CEOs raking in massive tax breaks are American heroes.
It is in the spirit of "We the People" that most Americans do the best we can for ourselves and others with what we have. We believe all should have an opportunity at "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and do which we can to make sure everybody has a chance to succeed. When a national candidate attacks and disrespect African Americans by saying we want "more free stuff" and then tells his wealthy donors that we're keeping them back by wanting "more free stuff", he's not just insulting us. He's insulting his donors by telling lies and he's insulting all Americans who know first-hand that "nothing is really free," who share our values and struggles, and who are voters and citizens of the country that he's hoping to lead.