By Joy-Ann Reid
Joy-Ann Reid is Managing Editor of TheGrio.com, an msnbc Contributor, and a NOWist.
Mitt Romney rolled into South Carolina having won both the Iowa Caucuses (by a hair) and the New Hampshire primary, but saddled with the baggage of Bain Capital, via super PAC ads that portray him as a greedy, heartless, "vulture capitalist." How better to rebrand, and to show that Jesus Christ really is his personal savior (hear that, Mormon-skeptics?) than with an act of charity?
And God sent Ruth Williams.
Williams, a 55-year-old black woman, is hardly the archetype of the Republican base voter. In South Carolina, blacks make up just 2 percent of the GOP. But Williams, who has been out of work since last October, says God led her to Mitt Romney's campaign stop, there to receive $50 from his own hands -- a blessing that, along with the $150 or so from his state treasurer, helped her keep her lights on. Ruth was so moved by Romney's generosity, she has begun volunteering for Romney's campaign -- not going door to door drumming up primary votes, or answering the phones (though wouldn't a black woman showing up at the door be an interesting campaign strategy.) No, Ruth is cleaning up at one of Romney's campaign offices, and "just doing little things."
If the image of Ruth Williams accepting $50 from the GOP's $250 million man -- a guy for whom $10,000 is a casual bet, making $50 something like flicking a quarter at Ms. Williams and mussing her hair -- makes you cringe, count me in. Whatever his intent, Romney's gesture toward Ms. Williams reinforces a stereotype about black people that sadly, is still potent on the conservative margins, and sometimes in the mainstream, too. Remember Newt Gingrich insisting that poor kids know nothing of work ethic "unless it's something illegal," so they should be made janitors in their schools, so they can learn personal responsibility by cleaning up after the kids with money? Newt repeated that gem in a black South Carolina church this weekend. Newt also is the guy who said he'd go to the NAACP and tell black people to demand work, not welfare. Because, you know, all black people are demanding welfare. Or Rick Santorum saying he doesn't want to make black -- sorry, "blah" -- people's lives better with "other people's money," again pounding the false "blacks and welfare" meme. And let's not forget Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who this weekend was likened to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. himself by his black lieutenant governor, because making her his running mate fulfilled her ... I mean "The" Dream. This despite the fact that Scott's idea of relating to black people has been to tell audiences of black college students and state legislators that -- presumably like them -- he grew up in public housing.
Unwittingly, Ruth Williams reinforced the stereotype that too many on the right, and a larger number than any of us wants to contemplate in the "modern" south, have of black people: that they are dependent, childlike and constantly in search of handouts. Add to that the service Ms. Williams chose to provide in return for Romney's God-directed charity -- cleaning his offices -- and you have a picture of perfect subservience, bathed in old time religion. There's certainly nothing wrong with manual labor -- and many black women paved the way for modern black women by laboring in the homes and cleaning the offices of white people. There's nothing inherently humiliating about that, but Ms. Williams' story sounds like a scene out of "The Help," not the modern campaign trail.
As a black woman, I find myself feeling embarrassed for Ms. Williams, just as I was for Herman Cain when he wrote in his political autobiography that as president, he'd want his Secret Service name to be "cornbread," or when he made a virtue -- and a joke -- out of his ignorance, to the delight of the tea party.
Meanwhile, Mr. Romney's gesture, however sincere it may have been, has to be seen in the context of his and his party's belief that we should dismantle such "entitlements" as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare; that laying off people (or to coin a George Will/Dick Armey phrase: "dead weight") and reaping unbelievable profits by shipping those jobs overseas is simply the "creative destruction" of capitalism; that unemployment insurance just makes people lazy; or that private charity should replace a common, societal approach to tackling poverty and want.
As if the unemployed should, like Ms. Williams, be reduced to depending on the kindness of strangers.