I was just going to ignore Pat Buchanan's screed on the subject of Obama's speech -- in many ways, its title, "A Brief For Whitey", tells you everything you need to know about it. However, on reflection, I did want to highlight one bit:
"First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.
Wright ought to go down on his knees and thank God he is an American.
Second, no people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans. Untold trillions have been spent since the ’60s on welfare, food stamps, rent supplements, Section 8 housing, Pell grants, student loans, legal services, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits and poverty programs designed to bring the African-American community into the mainstream. (...)
We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude?"
I'm not going to focus on the idiocy of going on about how grateful blacks should be to whites without so much as mentioning the two centuries of slavery, the century of peonage and terrorism, and the fact that when blacks finally won civil rights, it was hardly due to a spontaneous surge of generosity on the part of whites. I take it that's all too obvious to be worth saying. What I do want to focus on is the peculiar idea that things like "welfare, food stamps, rent supplements, Section 8 housing, Pell grants, student loans, legal services, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits and poverty programs" constitute things whites did for blacks. Because that's just false. Ta-Nehisi Coates:
"There is a lot wrong here, but one central thread of errant logic undergirds it all. Buchanan, like most racists, doesn't actually believe that African-Americans are Americans. This isn't an interpretation, Buchanan's argument that white Americans, in the form of social programs, have done more for black people than any group (including presumably the entire Civil Rights Movement!) assumes that black people have never paid any taxes for those programs. He quite literally doesn't categorize black people as Americans, but useless layabouts who've never contributed anything to the country."
Taking Buchanan's errors one by one:
(1) Who provided welfare, food stamps, etc.? Not white people, but the US government, and through it, the taxpayers. Blacks pay taxes. They helped to provide those programs. To imagine that they did not is, quite literally, to write them out of the citizenry.
(2) To whom were welfare, food stamps, etc., provided? Not to blacks, but to Americans of all ethnicities. Annoyingly, I can't find historical data, but I believe that in general, while the proportion of black families on welfare was considerably higher than the proportion of white families on welfare (reflecting higher black poverty rates), the number of white families on welfare was generally higher. This was true in 1993, for which I did find data; the number of black families had edged slightly ahead of whites by 1995. In any case, the point is: welfare was not given to blacks; it was given to people who met certain race-neutral criteria, and that included an awful lot of whites. The same is true of Pell Grants: they are given to needy students of whatever ethnicity. Ditto food stamps, rent supplements, Section 8, and so on and so forth.
To talk about these programs as a gift from whites to blacks makes no more sense than saying that blacks who live in Manhattan should be grateful to whites for "giving them" Central Park or the subway. Whites did not "give" those things at all, nor did they give them to blacks in particular. We, as a society, decided to give AFDC to single mothers with children, Pell Grants to poor kids who wanted to go to college, food stamps to people who needed food, and so forth, just as New York, as a city, decided to make public transport and public parks available to its citizens.
(3) But it's worse than that. Some of these programs were actually designed specifically to minimize the number of blacks who would be able to benefit from them. PBS has a good summary:
"The landmark Social Security Act of 1935 provided a safety net for millions of workers, guaranteeing them an income after retirement. But the act specifically excluded two occupations: agricultural workers and domestic servants, who were predominately African American, Mexican, and Asian. As low-income workers, they also had the least opportunity to save for their retirement. They couldn't pass wealth on to their children. Just the opposite. Their children had to support them.
Like Social Security, the 1935 Wagner Act helped establish an important new right for white people. By granting unions the power of collective bargaining, it helped millions of white workers gain entry into the middle class over the next 30 years. But the Wagner Act permitted unions to exclude non-whites and deny them access to better paid jobs and union protections and benefits such as health care, job security, and pensions. Many craft unions remained nearly all-white well into the 1970s. In 1972, for example, every single one of the 3,000 members of Los Angeles Steam Fitters Local #250 was still white.
But it was another racialized New Deal program, the Federal Housing Administration, that helped generate much of the wealth that so many white families enjoy today. These revolutionary programs made it possible for millions of average white Americans - but not others - to own a home for the first time. The government set up a national neighborhood appraisal system, explicitly tying mortgage eligibility to race. Integrated communities were ipso facto deemed a financial risk and made ineligible for home loans, a policy known today as "redlining." Between 1934 and 1962, the federal government backed $120 billion of home loans. More than 98% went to whites. Of the 350,000 new homes built with federal support in northern California between 1946 and 1960, fewer than 100 went to African Americans."
It's worth dwelling on the example of Social Security a bit. As I understand it -- and here I defer to any historians in our midst -- Southern Congressmen, who ran some of the relevant committees, opposed giving social security benefits to blacks in the South, and particularly to rural blacks. One of the means whereby some landowners secured the loyalty of their black workers was by implicit agreements to make some provision for them if they lived to old age. Had the federal government provided Social Security to black sharecroppers in the South, that would have undercut landowners' ability to demand their labor and their loyalty. As a result, agricultural workers and domestics were excluded from Social Security for two decades.
Likewise, the FHA tied mortgage eligibility explicitly to race during the great expansion of the suburbs, not lending to minority neighborhoods because it defined them as "unstable", and not lending to blacks who wanted to move into white neighborhoods on the grounds that their very presence would make their new neighborhood "unstable". This meant that during the period when white Americans were moving to suburbs and building wealth in their homes, blacks were prevented from doing the same by federal policy.
Similarly, AFDC (originally Aid to Dependent Children):
"A modest initiative under the new Social Security Act, ADC provided a subsidy to families with fathers who were deceased, absent, or unable to work. While the law was not limited to families headed by widows, it was viewed as a means of extending help to these families, who had had the misfortune to lose a breadwinner and who, it was widely believed, should not be forced to rely on the paid work of a mother, who belonged at home. (...) Federal ADC aid was contingent on state contributions, and states were given considerable discretion to determine ADC eligibility and grant levels. For example, a state could continue to require that only children living in so-called "suitable homes" could receive assistance. Until they were struck down in 1960, these requirements were used to exclude "undesirable" families from aid, particularly children of never-married or African-American mothers." (emphasis added)
So, to sum up: these programs were not "given" by whites, but by American taxpayers, including blacks. They were not given to blacks, but to all Americans who met certain criteria. Finally, in many cases, those criteria were set up in such a way as to exclude blacks.
"Where's the gratitude", indeed.