If people wonder why more black people didn’t celebrate the election of the first black Republican woman to the House of Representatives, one may not need look past Mia Love’s first 30 seconds on the national stage in 2012.
Her opening video at the 2012 Republican National Convention was about college orientation and segued quickly to her father working hard and being proud of not taking any handouts. According to Love, her father implored her, “You won’t be a burden to society. You will give back.”
Before you know her name, what state she’s from, or why she has a video segment at the RNC, it is most important for you to know that she’s not like the black stereotypes.
Indeed, she’s exactly the opposite of common conservative gripes about black people: they’ve made bad decisions, they don’t value education, they’re lazy, they’re entitled, and they have become burdens on society that do not give back.
This is playing directly to what is sometimes called “resentment politics”: people, particularly black people, are perceived to be the unfair beneficiaries of the government’s largesse. People who don’t get these perceived benefits are resentful—blacks, whites, whomever—and particularly so when they see so much black poverty and perceived criminality in spite of those benefits.
A narrative like Mia Love’s—one which directly contrasts her experience with these stereotypes—confirms the biases of the resentful part of the electorate. Furthermore, it gives a veneer of cover to people who are sensitive to accusations of race bias because they emphatically embrace a black person.
As the Obama years have shown repeatedly, conservatives are quick to reject assertions that there is a strain of racial resentment politics associated with their brand. While some on the left are far too eager to call something “racist,” the choice of lead-in to Love’s RNC speech demonstrates that either the GOP needs to keep dipping into the well of resentment, or they perceive they do.
Love’s self-framing plays into the exceptionalism that many black conservatives fall victim to. It’s as if she were to say, “I am not like them. I’m like you: Good people. Hard working people. Not like those people.”
After her victory in Utah Tuesday night, two years after her RNC debut, Love said that her election wasn’t about her race. But she also said “Many of the naysayers out there said that Utah would never elect a black, Republican, LDS woman to Congress. And guess what? Not only did we do it, we were the first to do it.”
This faux colorblindness allows Love to separate herself from the (stereotypes of) her race, yet reap the benefits of being the up-and-coming black face of the Republican Party. She is exactly the kind of black person the GOP feels comfortable supporting: an exception.
Some people on social media complained that Love and Tim Scott—the first black man popularly elected to the Senate from the old Confederacy—were not getting the same historic achievement treatment that black Democrats doing the same thing would.
In Scott’s case, I think this partially true. But keep in mind, Scott was an incumbent with conservative bona fides and a safe seat in a solidly red state. His initial appointment to the Senate was, in fact, rightfully covered by the press as historic. Moreover, there was—as many of those Republicans may have noticed—a large electoral shift Tuesday night that grabbed most of the headlines.
Nevertheless, this again is the faux colorblindness embraced by the GOP: they claim they don’t want to talk about race, but complain their black faces aren’t celebrated or appreciated enough.
Overall, Tim Scott has been a paragon of black conservatism. He talks about the opportunities he was given, his mother’s focus on “future [he] didn’t see,” and the guidance of a mentor and entrepreneur who taught him business skills—implicitly acknowledging that those still impoverished may not see the hope and opportunities he was given. He hasn’t backed down from those who would attack him on civil rights because he disagrees with the broader left agenda, and does so without saying his critics are on a Democratic plantation.
Most important, Scott makes his points about growth and achievement without degrading those still struggling at the bottom of America’s socio-economic ladder. Love often talks about her immigrant roots and her parents’ resolve to “look inward,” and “not to Washington,” when times got rough.
Again, Love returns to the unsubtle implication is that poor people—and by implied contrast, poor blacks—are too dependent on Washington and that is what is holding them back.
Missing from this narrative are the effects of the criminal justice apparatus, housing discrimination, and other impediments too often lacking from conservative explanations of poverty. Love could talk about the perverse incentives of the welfare state—such as recipients refusing raises at low-wage jobs because crossing an income threshold would be a net loss in benefits that the family may not be able to afford—but instead talks about inner strength as if those struggling don’t have any or enough.
This is emblematic of the greater problem for the Republican Party, how they tend to treat poor people, and especially poor black people.
Love’s family’s story is remarkable, and they have every reason to be proud. But ‘we made it without Welfare’ is an anecdote, not a policy.
The rise of Tim Scott and Mia Love does mark a genuine opportunity for the GOP to ramp up their minority outreach. But they do present different messages, and the message the Republicans choose to embrace will be key in the success of that program.
They can promote Scott’s expansion of opportunity, or they can put a new black face on the same old politics of white resentment.
I know which one I’d choose. I’m less sure about the GOP.