At a Washington Post Live event concerning children’s literacy on Tuesday, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant opened his mouth and dropped a bomb. When asked why America is so “mediocre” in terms of educational achievement, here’s what he said.
I’m going to get in trouble — do you want me to tell the truth?…I think both parents started working. And the mom is in the workplace.
Of course, the statement was media gold. Governor Bryant has since been lambasted, as well he should, as a male chauvinist pig. And since political polarization is good for business, liberal pundits were quick to suggest an association between the statement and Governor Bryant’s party affiliation. I can’t blame them. The GOP is, after all, the party of the legitimate rape guys and crusaders, Governor Bryant included, against contraception and abortion. Put those three things together and, well, you get the picture.
But there’s more to this story. A more complex picture of the present politics of the right wing comes to fore if we cut through all of the colorblind racism by holding up the lens of race. The notion that American mediocrity is the result of women entering the workplace and leaving behind their traditional roles as stay-at-home mothers ignores the fact that women of color have always been workers in the U.S., and especially in states like Mississippi. Either that or Governor Bryant is winking at reactionaries in his base who believe that communities of color set the standard for mediocrity.
One of the clearest indications of the fact that women of color have always worked outside the home is the history of welfare in the U.S., and especially in Southern states like Mississippi. Women of color, and especially black women, were systematically excluded from welfare all the way through the period of the rise of the American middle class in the middle of the last century. In states like Mississippi, even when some benefits were available, these benefits functioned as a public subsidy to farmers, keeping black women afloat during the low season, but excluding them from benefits during harvest times because their labor was needed in the fields.
Historically the “family wage” that allowed only one wage earner to support a middle class household was only enjoyed widely by white men. Instead, a black wage standard that counted upon black workers’ exclusion from the protection of labor and minimum wage laws was imposed on workers of color requiring families of color to have two incomes to support a household, even at a much lower standard of living than was enjoyed by the average white family.
And while many believe the New Deal was a corrective to this kind of discrimination, the reality is that the New Deal was a raw deal for people of color, especially women. According to University of Pennsylvania professor of law and Africana Studies, Dorothy E. Roberts,
The New Deal solidified welfare’s stratification along racial as well as gender lines. Northern New Dealers struck a bargain with Southern Democrats that systematically denied Blacks’ eligibility for social insurance benefits: Core programs allowed states to define eligibility standards and excluded agricultural workers and domestic servants in a deliberate effort to maintain a Black menial labor caste in the South. Whites feared that Social Security would make both recipients and those freed from the burden of supporting dependents less willing to accept low wages. In addition, New Deal public works programs blatantly discriminated against Blacks, offering them the most menial jobs and paying them sometimes half of what white workers earned. Even Aid to Dependent Children was created primarily for white mothers, who were not expected to work; the relatively few Black recipients received smaller stipends on the ground that “blacks needed less to live on than whites.”
Black communities, broadly speaking, have no housewife tradition. There is no halcyon time to harken back to when women raised children at home. Nor do communities of color more generally. There has never been a generation in my own family in which women anticipated anything but work outside of the home. So rare were instances in which women of color stayed home that I was raised with the belief that the stay-at-home mom was a white institution, as exotic to us as the Eiffel Tower and pyramids at Giza.
Governor Bryant is not ignorant of these facts. Mississippi has just about the worst track record of any state in the country when it comes to the excluding black women from legal protections in order to make them more exploitable as workers. When he waxes nostalgic, he’s really building support for a time when middle and upper class white men were politically dominant in virtually every aspect of life, including the bedroom, and the super-exploitation of women in general, and especially women of color, subsidized a way of life we should all fight tooth and nail to bury in the past forever.