During the Presidential election, conservative commentators sought to characterize Obama supporters as feeling they were 'entitled to things'. The post-election commentary has revealed an unmistakable (and uncomfortable) racial element to this.

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By Stephen Menendian at Race Talk

On election night, Bill O’Reilly attributed the re-election of Barack Obama, at least in part, to voters who “want stuff,” and that his supporters are “people [who] feel that they are entitled to things.” The day after the election, Rush Limbaugh used his program to make a similar claim, calling Obama “Santa Claus,” and saying that “[i]t’s just very difficult to beat Santa Claus.” He went onto say that “[i]n a country of children where the option is Santa Claus or work, what wins?” Most recently, in a call to donors, Mitt Romney claimed that Obama won reelection because he gave “gifts” to blacks, Hispanics, and younger voters.

These remarks are reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s secretly taped, and now infamous, remarks about the 47%,which caught him saying that “there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government,[…] who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. […]And the government should give it to them.”

Bill O'Reilly on Fox News

(futureatlas.com / flickr)

For those who believed that these remarks had a racial dimension, the post-election commentary removes all doubt. Rush Limbaugh underlined his Santa Clause analogy with a brief video of an Obama supporter at a rally in Ohio, who appears, from her carefully edited comments, to support the President because of her government provided phone. This video was originally posted in late September, and quickly made the Drudge Report headline.

Of the many explicitly racist or racially tinged, dog-whistles made during the campaign, perhaps none was as disturbing as this video. It is not the content of this video that is racist as it is the way this video is framed. The full meaning of this video only becomes apparent in the context of the narrative that conservatives frame this video within.

Superficially, the video is suggesting — not to subtly — that a desire for “things” is the real reason so many support the President. But more disturbingly, the deeper message of this video is, as the Atlantic put it, “[this is] what Obama’s supporters really look like.” In other words, it is not just the fact that this video is suggesting that Obama supporters are “takers,” and “want things” from government, but that Obama supporters (read: the 47%) “aren’t like us”– that Obama supporters aren’t hardworking Americans, traditional (read: white) Americans.

This video contributes to an “othering” process that, to quote john powell, removes people beyond the “circle of human concern,” such that they aren’t worthy of our concern or regard. This is measurable. Brain scans reveal how extreme marginalization renders the “other” non-human. These narratives and this video help generate the schemas in the mind that code these categories to the racial “other.”

This woman protesting Romney in Ohio has unwittingly become the new viral racialized image for 47%, just as Ronald Reagan’s infamous welfare queen from the south side of Chicago was a racialized image of government dependency. I was shocked that so few racial justice advocates called out this video for the insidious work it was performing, let alone took notice of it.

It’s time to condemn this racialized imagery and the racism it connotes. Supporters of the President could have easily dug up ridiculous videos of poor, less educated Romney supporters, yet none (to my knowledge) has been deployed to perform this kind of work, of stirring racial resentment that this one has. It seems likely that conservatives will take this video, this racialized image, and this broader narrative of intersecting demographic change and growing government dependence into the 2014 elections and beyond. They will cast Obama supporters as lazy and anti-work. Although their appeals may work, they could not be further off the mark.

(Ben Piven / Flickr)

The conservative leaning commentators, David Frum and David Brooks, have accurately described the problem with this analysis. Rejecting the attempt to cast the election as a vote between “makers” and “takers,” Frum asserts that “[t]he president was re-elected by people who want to work -- and who were convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the president’s policies were more likely to create work than were the policies advocated by my party.” Calling people “takers” who want to work was insulting to many Americans, and only doomed the GOP. Moreover, Frum also refutes the attempt to code this line to race: “The line between “making” and “taking” is not a racial line. The biggest government program we have, Medicare, benefits a population that is 85% white.”

As David Brooks recently pointed out in his post-election analysis, “[t]he Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.” Yet both groups voted 70%+ for Obama.

All Americans, white, Asian, Latino, and of course, African-Americans, value work and want to work. The fundamental flaw in the conservative narrative is the assumption that people who voted for the President don’t want to work. As a general rule, people don’t seek affordable college loans or apply for food stamps because they are lazy. The problem is that opportunities to make a livable wage are harder to come by for many reasons, including globalization, de-industrialization, and the economic recession.

Perhaps the most important political statement of the year was the crescendo of Julian Castro’s brilliant keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, where he said: “We all understand that freedom isn’t free. [N]either is opportunity. We have to invest in it.” This is the fundamental flaw in the anti-government Republican narrative: the failure to recognize the ways in which government can “inflame ambition” and enhance opportunity.

We must reject the attempt to cast the American electorate into “makers” and “takers,” and code those groups to race. Americans did not vote for government dependence. Rather they voted with an understanding that, as David Brooks keenly perceived, “some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.” They choose a vision that acknowledges a role for government in fostering economic opportunity rather than one that comes across as didactically anti-government.

This post was orginally published on Race-Talk, A blog hosted by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.