The original version of the proposal would have exempted rural white areas from work requirements.
By Arthur Delaney
BETTMANN VIA GETTY IMAGES
Don’t call Mike Shirkey racist. He was just trying to help.
The Republican state Senator in Michigan wanted people on Medicaid to work in order to keep their benefits, but not if they live in counties with high unemployment. He thought it was ridiculous that anyone would call his plan racist.
“I only see one race ― that’s the human race,” Shirkey said in an interview. “I can’t help… where people choose to live.”
The geographical exemption he pitched just so happened to correlate with racial differences in Michigan, benefiting whiter rural counties but not struggling, predominantly black cities, which tend to be located in low-unemployment counties. Shirkey didn’t think that was unfair.
“Don’t tell me that somebody living in the city of Detroit isn’t closer to services and potential jobs in Wayne County than people living in a northern Michigan county are,” he said. “The distances from them to potential jobs are far greater and the services are far fewer.”
After waves of criticism, Shirkey said last week that he’ll abandon the offending provision to avoid an “administrative nightmare.” The state Senate passed the bill last month, but the House hasn’t acted yet.
In defending his proposal, Shirkey seemed to be asking for an exemption of another kind: You can’t call his policy racist if it’s race-neutral in design. But his bill fits a longstanding pattern in America whereby Jim Crow policies get smuggled through the back door, under the cover of euphemism. African-Americans have been systematically shorted on government benefits since the early 20th century through policy variances that were not explicitly racist in intent but had a disparate racial impact in practice.
Take the exclusion of farmworkers and maids from various New Deal programs in the 1930s, including the Social Security Act’s retirement insurance. Ostensibly it was too difficult to collect the needed payroll taxes from agriculture and domestic workers since they didn’t punch the clock in the same way as people in factories.
It just so happened that farmworkers and maids represented 65 percent of the black labor force at the time. Policymakers may not have had an identifiably racist intent, but African-American workers were disproportionately omitted from what is often called the most effective poverty-reducing program in U.S. history.
“The exclusion of so many black Americans from the bounty of public policy, and the way in which these important, large-scale national programs were managed, launched new and potent sources of racial inequality,” Ira Katznelson, a Columbia University political historian, wrote in his 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White. “The federal government, though seemingly race-neutral, functioned as a commanding instrument of white privilege.”
In an article on the decision to initially exclude farmworkers and maids that the Social Security Administration promotes on its website, public historian Larry DeWitt argued that hearing transcripts and committee reports indicate administrative difficulty was the only reason ― essentially because nobody explicitly said the goal was to exclude black people.
“We cannot impute racism to the Social Security program on the assumption that this provision was designed to exclude from coverage African-Americans if in fact exclusion was not the purpose,” DeWitt wrote.
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The occupational carveouts can be found throughout the laws of the New Deal. Occasionally the mask slipped, and the real purpose was laid bare. In reference to the exclusion of agricultural workers from the Fair Labor Standards Act, for instance, Rep. James Mark Wilcox (D-Fla.) insisted on maintaining wage differences between white and black workers.