(Salon) – The continuing decline of public sector jobs at local, state, and federal levels is having an abysmal economic impact on African Americans, for whom steady, stable government employment opportunities have provided a sure path into the middle class. The New York Times reported yesterday that “roughly one in five black adults works for the government, teaching school, delivering mail, driving buses, processing criminal justice and managing large staffs.” Because Black people hold a disproportionate number of government jobs, cutbacks that affect everyone hit Black communities even harder.
In many ways that goes without saying. When America sneezes, Black America gets the flu. But I want to suggest that something even more sinister animates this swift pivot in the country away from an investment in public goods and services. It is not simply that Black people are victims of a numbers game. Rather, there has been a wholesale P.R. campaign on the part of those on the right to associate all public goods and services, from public schools to public assistance, with the bodies of undeserving people of color, particularly Blacks and Latinos.
Any discussion of welfare or public assistance in this country is rife with dog whistles from the right toward the lower elements of their base, who in Pavlovian fashion, respond to code words about welfare and public assistance by conjuring images of the undeserving Black and Brown poor. In his new book “How Propaganda Works,” Yale philosopher Jason Stanley argues that while a “liberal democratic culture… does not tolerate explicit degradation of its citizens,” there are “apparently innocent words that have the feature of slurs, namely that whenever the words occur in a sentence, they convey the problematic content. The word welfare …conveys a problematic social meaning.” I am suggesting that the word “public” in our political discourse is becoming just such a tool of political propaganda as well.