The Surprising Revelations of “Useless” Facts

There’s something quaintly enjoyable about useless facts. I own a couple of such books, which are filled with random, quirky – and, it must be said, astonishing – nuggets of information. Part of the appeal is learning something new; I often like to store my quarry away, satisfied that I have received something fresh to sustain my already-extant thirst for knowledge. It’s an easy process, too. But the beauty of discovering something about the world that was previously shrouded in mystery lies in the effect such a fact can have on the contours of one’s thinking. More than simply pieces of knowledge, shorn of all context, some facts have the ability to tell a story about the way a portion of the world works. Indeed, they contain within themselves an entire narrative, waiting to be unfurled. Take, for example, this little tidbit, which I found in a book of strange facts published by the British magazine, Prospect:

“Without the black vote, the Democrats would have won the US presidency only once, in 1964″ (“‘You are in Fact One-Third Daffodil’ – and Other Facts to Turn Your World Upside-Down,” Tom Nuttall, p.53. Emphasis mine).

This is quite interesting, for a number of reasons. What looms largest in my mind is what the fact reveals about the Democratic Party’s apparent dependence on the votes of African-Americans for ongoing electoral success. I knew that blacks voted for Democrats in large numbers; but little did I realise the extent to which one of America’s two great political parties relied on that ethnic bloc for victory at the ballot box. In fact, statistics regularly put the percentage of African-Americans voting Democrat at approximately 90%. As the National Review highlighted last year, 92% of blacks voted for Al Gore at the 2000 election, whilst 88% voted for John Kerry four years later. This comes, despite African-Americans constituting just 13% of the population of the United States (US Census Bureau, 2011). It has been said that if the Republican Party could peel away just 5-10% of the black vote, the Democrats would be in “perpetual electoral jeopardy” (Peter Kirsanow, “Blacks, Democrats and Republicans, National Review, March 15, 2011).

What could possibly explain this perennial, and chronic, electoral situation? How does one offer an interpretation for why the US Democrats have had to rely so heavily upon the black vote for so long? From the outset, the answer is apparent: mutual, reciprocal dependence. In other words, it seems that the perverse – and ultimately illusory – symbiosis between African-American voters and Democrats has fuelled and perpetuated certain cultural, social and political strains prevalent in both groups. To be sure, neither African-Americans nor the Democrats are monolithic blocs. However, over the past 50 years, they have bound themselves together in a socio-political relationship – which, whilst offering the Democrats a narrow foundation for success at ballot box, has in fact imprisoned many African-Americans within oppressive material and psychological conditions, from which escape has seemed unlikely. Indeed, it seems that both ethnic community and political party are marked by certain perceptions that are harboured, nurtured and maintained by both groups’ electoral-political behaviour. I’ll return to this theme a little later; now, however, I want to concentrate on the reasons for, and the implications of, this perennial political trope.

Why might this relationship have arisen? The root causes appear to lie in a confused mix of past injustice; lingering historical guilt; the propagation of statist ideas regarding the elimination of poverty; the prevalence of African-Americans in job sectors that traditionally lean towards the Democrats; and the self-styled depictions of the Democratic Party as the saviour of the African-American community (certainly encouraged – or at least, not discouraged – by black leaders). Very few people these days would attempt to rebut the notion that blacks in America have, historically, been an oppressed minority. It is clear that the manifold grievances of even present-day blacks are legitimate. The Democratic Party, however, seems to have taken legitimate claims of discrimination and transmogrified them into a successful electoral strategy – portraying itself as the party of “black salvation”, so to speak. One might dispute this contention, but it’s at least an inarguable proposition that African-Americans – judging by recent voting trends – view the US Democratic Party as the exclusive political answer to the community’s perceived problems. Still, as Joe Biden, the current Vice-President, recently claimed, Romney & co. want to “put y’all back in chains” (The Huffington Post, 8th August, 2012). There has been some dispute over the exact referents in his remark; but, with hundreds of black people in the audience – and even black commentators arguing that his words were a coded form of race-baiting (see Arthur Davis’ piece in The National Review) – it seems that Biden’s words were meant to reinforce a particular political narrative: that whilst Republicans would like to try and stall progress made in regards to issues of race, the Democrats are the true friends of minorities; they alone have the ability (not to mention the desire) to “save” the black community. Biden, with his confected play-on-words, artlessly exposed what has, it seems, been long insinuated. It’s just the latest in a long line of rhetorical jabs that reflect the Democrats’ contrived portrayal as the party of racial liberation. Although that chiliastic thrust reached its zenith with the election of Barack Obama, it’s one that has persisted for the past five decades.

Rhetoric is one thing. But how has this salvationist portrayal been reflected in political-policy terms? Several items of policy supported by Democrats have been used as a means of suggesting that they alone hold the keys to liberation for African-Americans – thereby inducing them to vote, with herd-like unanimity, for the same party time and time again. The precise mix between sincere (if misguided) compassion and cynical, hard-headed politicking may be difficult to unravel. Still, despite the perceived benefits that flow to the African-American community as a result of voting Democrat, doing so is actually detrimental to blacks. Several political prescriptions have become near-scriptural in their authority over the shape and contours of Democratic thinking. One such policy is welfare entitlements [1], which typify the way some ideas are able to mask their socially deleterious effects with the feted illusion of good-will and politically-induced denialism. Indeed, after 45 years and several trillion dollars, welfare policies have contributed, it seems, to a culture of grievance and dependency – something which has been especially destructive for the black underclass in the United States (see Peter Kirsanow, “Blacks, Democrats and Republicans”, National Review, March 15, 2011). Moreover, it has been particularly damaging to black children, with some 39% living in poverty today (as compared with 14% of non-Hispanic white children – see “The Annie E. Casey Foundation” and its “Kids Count” Data Centre).

Research confirms this broad-brush statement. The conservative think-tank, “The Heritage Foundation”, conducted an extensive analysis in an effort to understand the differences in black and white child poverty rates [2], in light of the fact that 33.1% of black children, as compared with 13.5% of white children, lived in poverty in the United State when the report was published (see US Census Bureau, 1999). They found that, of the major possible causes of child poverty prevalent in the United States, welfare dependency – along with single parenthood – was the most significant. The report stated that black children were five times more likely to be on welfare than white children, often owing to the fact that they grew up in single parent households (with close to three times the number of black children born out of wedlock than white children).

Some might argue that the process runs in the opposite direction: in other words, generalised poverty causes welfare dependency, rather than the reverse. Hence, the need for policies that parties such as the Democrats espouse. The authors of the report contended, however, that this assumption betrays a lack of understanding in regards to the way welfare entitlements work (in the United States, at least). For instance, welfare pre-conditions prohibit the extent to which the mother (for in these scenarios, it is inevitably the mother who is left to raise the children) can work. Since welfare is usually very low, a single mother who is unable to work is kept in a state of chronic poverty. Increases in welfare can only go so far, meaning that they cannot – on their own – lift individuals (much less single-parent families) out of the poverty cycle. In addition, the report argues that increases to welfare actually lure women out of the workforce, which can dramatically reduce their short- and long-term earning capacity even if they leave behind their reliance on welfare. Others may argue that it is racial discrimination in, say, the labour market, that causes poverty – and, therefore, inordinate levels of welfare dependency and single parenthood in the black community. The implied conclusion is that welfare is a necessary attempt to redress the balance. Again, the writers of the report counter this argument with the fact of higher rates of marriage and family stability amongst African-Americans in the 1940s, when income disparities were much starker, and racial oppression more pronounced. Today, black income rates are 85% of white incomes – still demonstrably inequitable, but a vast improvement over the past 70 years. It is the rise of single-parenthood, along with the attendant consequences of welfare dependency, which has led to enduring, inter-generational impoverishment amongst the black community. Of course, the point is not to analyse or evaluate the collapse of marriage within the African-American community (though there may be reason to think that welfare can have a damaging cultural impact in this respect). However, the point is that policies such as welfare entitlements, far from constituting a response to racial inequality and the entrenchment of penury, actually perpetuate them. In the process, some of the country’s most vulnerable – that is, impoverished children – are left behind.

Nevertheless, the Democratic Party has persisted in advocacy for this kind of response to the tragic phenomenon of black poverty. And, as I noted earlier, it would appear that the party has styled itself as the political paragon of racial and ethnic justice. Commitment to welfare is one substantive manifestation of this now-concocted self-identity – one that seems to have degenerated into a craven electoral strategy, reinforced by the brazenness of race-tinged rhetoric. Of course, with the troubled history of black-white relations brooding over the United States, who wouldn’t want to portray themselves as a fierce advocate for racial justice? Why would a political group not seek to supply the answer to protracted socio-ethnic issues? The problem is that the Democratic Party has embroiled itself, as well as the African-American community, in a monstrous cycle from which extrication seems impossible. With remarkable inoculating power, the policies espoused by the Democratic Party have kept both it and many American blacks trapped in a kind of mutually dependent relationship that reinforces the illusion of need and advancement. The more blacks are trapped within a state of dependency, the more government largesse seems necessary. None of this is to suggest that all blacks, or even the vast majority, are on welfare. Many are part of the middle-class. However, the reality of high rates of welfare dependency within the black community – combined with the collective sense of grievance stoked by some black leaders and members of the political class – has encouraged this enduring, yet perverse, socio-political bond.

It is at this point that I come back to the original fact – that single match, which ignited the kindling flame of reflection on the matter. The Democrats’ reflexive dedication to welfare as a panacea for society’s ills – coupled with the obvious political benefits that have accrued as a consequence – has both created and sustained this state of affairs. Depicting itself as the locus of African-American salvation, the party has come to repeatedly bank on this narrative as the means for electoral success. Moreover, it seems that parts of the black community, driven perhaps by the lingering grievances of a by-gone era, see state-driven entitlements as both a right and a solution. All the while, they appear oblivious to the stultifying effects, and the identity of “aggrieved victimhood”, such ideas can engender. The Democrats’ long-standing dependency on the black vote, as revealed by a seemingly innocuous piece of historical minutia, has in turn created dependency within that racial bloc. The fact that blacks continue to vote in this way – despite clear evidence pointing to the detrimental effects of such electoral behaviour – has, ironically, galvanised further support for reflexive Democratic social/welfare policies. Their supposed legitimacy is reinforced, removing any incentive to alter what is otherwise causing harm to many of the party’s base. If much of the black community is kept in a perennial state of poverty, urged on by the illusory promise of welfare entitlements and the near-messianic message propounded by America’s political Left, then it will continue to recapitulate the kind of en masse support upon which the Democrats so desperately rely and encourage.

Thus, the tangled dance continues apace: political party and ethnic community trapped in a damaging relationship that reduces the former to a caricature bereft of new ideas, and the latter to a state of collective infantilism. Tragically, the Democratic Party must perpetuate the notion of black dependency in order to retain the comprehensive trust it obligingly offers at the ballot box. To do so, it must cling to policy prescriptions that maintain the very economic and psychological conditions which keep blacks locked into a position of dependency, and induce them to vote Democrat (with indomitable faith) in the first place. This is an enduring scandal within the chequered history of American politics. The only way to arrest it is to neuter the mythical power of the Left’s narrative, including the persistence of welfare as an unexamined solution to both the legitimate grievances of the past and the imagined grievances of the present. Once that is broken, the African-American community may well see beyond the narrowness of its seemingly pre-ordained voting behaviour. Moreover, whilst such change would undoubtedly undercut the very support the Democratic Party needs to prevail at election time (at least for a time), it could well have a more positive, long-term result: the creation of a re-invigorated political bastion that is no longer beholden to pernicious shibboleths or hackneyed electoral tropes.

*          *          *

It’s quite surprising how one little fact can set in motion a whole train of thoughts. What initially appeared to be the preserve of the lover of trivia has, in fact, helped to prise apart the complexities of a little-understood phenomenon. Of course, the fact alone is just that: a fact. Sitting in splendid isolation, it does very little beyond communicating its own contents. And yet, when seen as a window into a whole new world, it can be very powerful indeed – shaping one’s thinking and radically altering one’s perspective. In this case, it has opened up a discussion about race relations, the role of the state and the price of welfarist policy. It’s an important, multifaceted conversation that is eminently relevant, not only in the United States, but across the Western world.

Not so useless now, eh?

[1] This essay is not an argument against welfare entitlements per se. In fact, I support a strong social safety net in general, recognizing that there are many occasions where people, apart from anything they have done, are trapped in an environment of poverty. What I take issue with, however, is the unthinking reliance on welfare as an exclusive solution to the scourge of poverty. As the above information suggests, welfare entitlements, at least in the way they are sometimes constructed and distributed, can have the opposite effect. If it’s true that the causes of poverty and socio-economic dislocation are sometimes structural/environmental, then it is equally true that welfare can, in itself, become just another structure – perpetuating those daily tragedies of want and penury, whilst creating a whole class of dependents who have been robbed of the opportunity to develop strong, robust attitudes to life. And, needless to say, the greater problem I have with welfare is that it can be – and in fact, is – cynically used by political parties as they seek to portray themselves as the paragons of justice and compassion. I think such is the case with the modern Democratic Party and its historical overtures to the African-American community.

[2] Go to Robert Rector, Kirk Johnson and Patrick Fagan, “Understanding Differences in Black and White Child Poverty Rates”, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports-/2001/05/understanding-differences-in-black-and-white-child-poverty-rates, May 23rd, 2001, for more details. Unless otherwise stated, all of the statistics supplied after this point have been garnered from the linked report.

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