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Jeb Bush Doesn't Care About Black Voters

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

John Ellis Bush, known to us by his initials and the accompanying exclamation point, has proven in this presidential race that he is an awful politician. Even with two candidates now out of the running, the former Florida governor has been the chief underperformer, polling well behind a reality-show provocateur, a failed CEO, and a born-again surgeon new to politics. To put it kindly, his campaign has been uninspiring to a vitriolic Republican voter base seeking to hold on to a cultural status quo they see slipping away from them. Bush has done his best to seem down with them, dropping terms like "anchor baby," but it has come off like a friend's dad trying to say something he heard in a hip-hop song. The dude is trying too hard, and it’s showing.

This may seem surprising, given his family legacy of White House occupants. But that would mistake a history of electoral success for bequeathed political acumen. Given that Jeb’s father rose to the Oval Office partially through the use of racial scapegoating and his older brother stayed there by warmongering, it would seem the playbook would have been laid out for him. After all, both of those strategies are working well for Donald Trump. But Bush, oddly, borrowed instead from President Obama on Thursday night when he responded to a question at the East Cooper Republican Women’s Club annual Shrimp Dinner in South Carolina.

After a man stood up in the mostly monochromatic crowd at the dinner, pointed to it, and asked Bush how he planned to attract the support of black voters, Bush responded with Obama’s 2008 slogan: “Our message is one of hope and aspiration,” he replied. He’d have been wrong even if he stopped there; it’s clear from how black voters and activists are responding to Democratic candidates and their initially clumsy approaches to racial justice that the African American electorate is past “hope and change.” But Bush made it worse when he went on to say that his message “isn't one of division and get in line and we'll take care of you with free stuff. Our message is one that is uplifting—that says you can achieve earned success.” 

That last part is funny, coming from a Bush. It's also a very odd thing to say if you’re actually interested in the black vote. Bush's statement presumes that most or all black voters either need “free stuff,” such as food assistance or health care, from the government to survive—or that the desire for handouts from the federal government trumps our work ethic and inclination to provide for our families. As Alec MacGillis observed, it also hearkens back to 1994, when then-gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush responded to an African American woman asking what he planned on doing for black people in Florida by saying, “Probably nothing.”

The derisive mention of “free stuff” also evokes the remarks of the most recent Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, during the 2012 campaign. Telling a Montana fundraiser crowd that “if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff” was offensive enough, but Romney compounded it by, in part, attributing his loss that November to the “gifts” voters of color had received and could expect from President Obama, our Santa Claus in the White House.

Bush’s “earned success” phrase is similarly telling; it is the rhetoric of stereotype, not motivation. It implies, as Republicans have since Reagan—and as white people have since the beginning of the nation—that black folks, whose ancestors provided white Americans with generations of unpaid labor, are lazy and aspire to be freeloaders. Such an appeal serves to feed a white conservative base that subsists on the notion that this country somehow belongs to them, and that their racial angst and fear will somehow help them keep it, demographics and logic be damned.

We knew that already, of course. It's long been clear that Bush has not made an effort to understand or address what black voters have said that they want: namely, protection from police abuse, and policies that seek to cut off the tentacles of structural racism. Bush's remarks betray the Republican neglect and disregard of black Americans and our concerns, and the resultant misunderstanding of who we even are. No amount of appeals on black radio networks, community forums, or even from black candidates like Ben Carson can obscure that truth.

Bush’s remark also signifies yet another failure of black respectability politics, the mode of thinking handed down to us from elders that would have us believe that one day, our pants will be hiked up high enough and our speech elocutionary enough to have folks like Jeb Bush believe we merit their respect. Republicans on the stump purposely paint us as shiftless, lazy scroungers, because they themselves think in a shiftless and lazy way. 

But even though Bush doesn’t respect the black people he wants us to believe he’s courting, it remains key that we understand him. Something Bush said earlier in the week offered even more insight into his perspective on American culture, and highlighted the fundamental law in the Republican racial argument.

“We should not have a multicultural society,” Bush said Tuesday in response to a young woman’s question about immigration at an Iowa campaign stop. “When you create pockets of isolation, and in some cases, the assimilation process has been retarded, it’s wrong. It limits people’s aspirations.” American identity, he added, is defined by a “set of values that people share,” and not by race. (You can watch the exchange here.) After his “free stuff” remark Thursday night, Bush was asked to clarify the previous comment. “We're pluralistic,” Bush said of the United States. “We're not multicultural. We have a set of shared values that defines our national identity. And we should never veer away from that.”

I disagree, but it’s out of my hands. Jeb’s, too. It isn’t a question any longer whether the United States should or should not be a multicultural society. We’re already there, folks, and getting more multicultural by the day. Bush, married to a Mexican-born woman and fluent in Spanish, should know this. The Republican Party certainly recognizes it: It's why the GOP exploits the fear of voters who think that they can still turn back the clock and make it a white, Christian, heterosexual nation “again.” It’s a smart political ploy, frankly.  

For the rest of us, the Republican prescription is assimilation. Bush is advocating that we assimilate to the “set of values” that he and his people share, and that many of us have yet to sign on to. But, then, Bush isn't truly calling for the assimilation of cultures. He wants colonization. It’s the same flawed notion that Bobby Jindal pushed last month when he told CBS’s Face the Nation, “Immigration without assimilation is invasion.” The message is clear: Either get with the program Republicans sell as our “national character,” or get out. What Jindal, Bush, and the others fail to grasp is that if the GOP embodies that national character, it is hardly something to which we should aspire.

While a lot of the media foolishly jumped on Bush after he called the assimilation process “retarded” on Tuesday, he was correct in his usage of the word. It’s actually the word “assimilation” he doesn't understand. He and his fellow Republicans fail to realize that assimilation, by definition, is a mutually beneficial process. It involves the incorporation of a variety of national traditions and characters into a wider context. To many degrees, Americans have done that with our culture since this nation was born. But symbolically and otherwise, we’re now at a tipping point. Electing an (assimilated) African American president surely had something to do with bringing us to this juncture, but so has the revitalized civil rights movement that is making real demands of politicians to do more—more than make empty rhetorical gestures designed to make it look like they care about the harmful effects of the policies for which they themselves are advocating.

If Republicans actually wanted to curry favor with these voters, they’d advocate for black liberation, which is mutually beneficial to everyone. It wouldn't be as far-fetched as it may sound. The movement for black liberation emphasizes personal accountability, a virtue the right has traditionally reserved for itself. But recognizing that would require effort and, at the very least, self-reflection. Stereotyping is easier.