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Romney's Race-Baiting Welfare Ads

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At the same time that Mitt Romney's surrogates were pretending to be outraged over Joe Biden's "chains" comment, the Romney campaign was trying out some of the most racially tinged attack lines since the Bush camp accused John McCain of secretly having an illegitimate black child back in 2000. The sanctimonious response to Biden's metaphor, when juxtaposed with an ad that conjures up images of welfare queens, reflects a startling amount of hypocrisy... that is, if hypocrisy from the Romney campaign were still capable of startling you.

Never mind that Romney's ad, which suggests that the Obama administration would "gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements," has been deemed false by independent fact checkers at FactCheck.org, Politifact, and The Washington Post. After all, the administration invited states to apply for waivers from federal welfare requirements under the condition that they increase the rate at which welfare recipients return to work by at least 20 percent. These waivers offer the kind of flexibility that (mostly Republican) state governors have been pleading for, and they effectively do more to encourage -- not discourage -- work. Oh, and never mind that Mitt Romney was one of these Republican governors who, in 2005, pled to the federal government for precisely this type of flexibility. Hypocrisy? Yet again?

I made these points recently in an appearance on Fox News, as you can see from the video below. But what I neglected to point out on air -- and what I'm hoping to highlight with this blog post -- is how racially motivated this strategy appears to be.

First of all, let's establish that the welfare issue is being pushed back into the headlines only by this ad campaign. I consume a lot of news, and as far as I can tell, the Obama administration policy hadn't been deemed newsworthy by either the mainstream or conservative media. Most outlets are focusing their coverage, reasonably enough, on how the Obama or Romney economic policies will affect our country's overall employment rate -- a very real challenge we face collectively. So why is the Romney camp trying to inflate the issue of poor mothers' employment prospects -- a hit controversy of the 1990s -- amid this more substantial problem?

A report by the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University showed how the "welfare queen" (to use Reagan's famous epithet) has taken on a racially coded "narrative script" that weakens support for social welfare programs and those associated with them. The report's author, Franklin Gilliam, suggests that facts hold less sway over public opinion when a topic is as racially charged as this one. In a recent interview, he told the Boston Globe that "what [the Romney campaign is] trying to do is cast Obama as 'the other.' They're reminding white, middle-class voters that Obama supports people you don't like and aren't like you."

Tali Mendelberg, a Princeton political scientist who authored The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality, observed in the same Boston Globe article:

If you contrast these against other equally critical ads on unemployment, you see that the welfare ads focus more on Obama's face. Second, there is also the double meaning of the slogan "Obama isn't Working," implying that Obama won't make lazy people work and doesn't work himself. Finally, all the visuals of people who are working are white ... The three components combine to send a racial cue ... The implicit equation is black equals no work, white equals work.

There are only two possible explanations the Romney campaign could have. They are either unaware of the charged racial sensitivities undergirding these campaign ads, in which case they're woefully out of touch with American public sentiment, or this is a deliberate effort to appeal to latent prejudices and drive a wedge between middle-class and poor Americans, in which case they're guilty of the class warfare of which they accuse the other side.

The Obama campaign has shown admirable restraint by not similarly casting Mitt Romney as "the other" by bringing attention to the thing that makes him different than most Americans -- namely, his Mormonism (even while President Obama, prodded by the right-wing media to explain his faith in the last campaign, gave a soul-searching speech on the topic). Should the Obama campaign continue to take the high road in the face of these racially coded attacks?