Star Parker, an African-American Republican with Tea Party ties and killer cheekbones that serve her well on frequent Fox News appearances, looks younger than the fiftysomething she is. In her run for a congressional seat in California, Parker has been known to show up at campaign events with a flower tucked behind one ear. There’s nothing of that softness, though, in the titles of her three books, White Ghetto: How Middle Class America Reflects Inner City Decay (2006), Uncle Sam’s Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America’s Poor and What We Can Do About It (2003), and Pimps, Whores and Welfare Brats: From Welfare Cheat to Conservative Messenger (1998).
As the last title indicates, Parker also happens to be a former welfare recipient and single mother who has talked publicly about her four abortions, all of which occurred before she became a born-again Christian and subsequently attended college for a degree in marketing. Since then, she has further remade herself as a far-right commentator and founded the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education, meant to combat poverty by encouraging private ownership and personal responsibility. She’s been on The View, Oprah, and, according to her bio, spoke at the 1996 RNC (though her name doesn’t appear on the official docket of floor speeches). Parker not only blames welfare for the financial crisis but cites it as a major reason for her decision to run for office.
To the constituents in her own district—which includes Compton, Long Beach, parts of Watts, and Signal Hill—she is a radical departure from the district’s traditionally liberal candidates. But Parker may be aiming for a national platform. She represents a type that often pops up as companion to right-wing movements fixated on personal responsibility: The welfare mother turned bootstrap success, come to tell all others dependent on government how they should free themselves. Democratic incumbent Laura Richardson, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, won the seat by a comfortable margin in a 2007 special election. But recently she’s been plagued by a personal financial scandal—Richardson defaulted on a subprime mortgage and has been accused of receiving preferential treatment from her lender—the perfect foil for someone who wants to trumpet that message of personal responsibility.
In addition to her books and television appearances, Parker regularly writes a syndicated column for Scripps Howard News Service, which runs on the prominent conservative Web site Townhall. * She recently held a “campaign” event in Wichita, Kan., a location that seems slightly inconvenient for the good people of Compton. Still, she’s raised $318,930, an impressive amount for someone without a shot in hell. (By way of comparison, former Slate blogger Mickey Kaus raised $54,936 in his recent, similarly quixotic California Senate primary bid, and Richardson’s raised $369,449.) Parker’s top donors include several Orange County real estate investors, a prominent Tea Party activist, the Susan B. Anthony List, Huck PAC, and SarahPAC. As befits a brand-building vanity candidacy, there are precious few local luminaries who’ve endorsed her, but her campaign site boasts that she’s backed by figures like Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson, Karl Rove, and Grover Norquist.
Most prominently, Sarah Palin has officially endorsed Parker as one of her Mama Grizzlies. To date, Palin has endorsed four African-American candidates, all with Tea Party ties—Parker, Allen West, Tim Scott, and Angela McGlowan, who, like Parker, is a Fox News favorite and had little chance of winning (though her résumé is far less flimsy than Parker’s). All four endorsements came in either April or June, which also happened to be when accusations of Tea Party racism were bubbling up most ferociously (and in advance of Palin’s “don’t retreat … reload” exhortation to Dr. Laura Schlessinger after the radio host came under fire for using the N-word).
In some ways, the Tea Party needs Parker more than she needs them. Backing candidates of color is at least partly a way for Palin, and the Tea Party generally, to get some plausible deniability on those charges. And, of course, it’s not remotely the first time the GOP has fetishized a black candidate to overcompensate for the fact that its platform has traditionally been so unappealing to African-Americans. But Parker’s image as an ex-welfare mother turned anti-welfare/immigration activist is particularly resonant—an update on an old trope, adapted to respond to new conservative anxieties about work, government assistance, and race.
That stereotype of welfare recipients as black and female started in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with Ronald Reagan’s racially coded description of a welfare queen driving her Cadillac around Chicago’s South Side. (In fact, a 1998 poll showed that just about 10 percent of welfare recipients are black and female.) Conservatives have often grappled with the “welfare queen” stereotype not by objecting to it but by holding up a few outliers to prove that black women could break out. Most prominently, during the mid-’90s welfare-reform debate, Eloise Anderson, a black former welfare mother, now a conservative scholar at the Claremont Institute, received a great deal of press as “the queen of responsibility” for her personal history and her hard-line stances on welfare as director of social services in both Wisconsin and California. There are also women on the left, like Theresa Funicello, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (both white), and (African-American) Rep. Gwen Moore, who drew upon their experience and cred as welfare mothers to advocate for the continuation or expansion of government help.
Critiques like Anderson’s and Parker’s are embraced joyously by the right: If even former welfare mothers know the system is terrible, it must be really terrible. “I lived the lie of the left,” Parker tells an interviewer, detailing “sexual promiscuity” and her decade in the welfare system. “I lived the culture that the administration … wants the rest of the country to live.” And if those women themselves are black, it’s harder to accuse them of wrapping racial prejudice up in that critique.
Since 1996, the battle over welfare reform had largely faded out, but lately the Tea Party has put its own bizarre twist on it, and revived welfare as loaded shorthand for government handouts. Carl Paladino (he of the racist e-mail forwarding), said he wanted to convert some of the state’s prisons into dormitories for welfare recipients, where they would work for the military or the parks or other public services. “Instead of handing out the welfare checks, we’ll teach people how to earn their check. We’ll teach them personal hygiene … the personal things they don’t get when they come from dysfunctional homes,” he said, but also emphasized his plan would help people who’d recently been forced into asking for handouts, not just the long-term recipients (presumably the people whose toothbrushing technique he’s so concerned about). Paladino also stressed that his plan was based off the 1930s Civilian Conservancy Corps—never mind the socialist tinges of that program; it’s the last time the face of government assistance was white. It’s a scrambled message: Welfare recipients need to be punished, hence the prisons, but there’s also an odd strand of sympathy, a realization that jobs don’t fall from trees.
It’s harder to villainize anyone who receives government handouts in an era when, for instance, an estimated one in eight Americans are on food stamps. So for the Tea Party, immigrants are the new welfare queens. Paladino’s campaign site says that “many [immigrants] jumped on New York’s Medicaid and social welfare systems the day they arrived.” Parker, for her part, is rerouting some of her welfare obsession to drive home a similar message. She trumpets that her district is home to the third-largest Cambodian population in the world—hard-working escapees of communism, she emphasizes—but she wants to shut the border to Mexican immigrants and build a wall. (Meanwhile, her district is currently about half Hispanic.) On Parker’s campaign Web site, under the heading “job and the economy,” she lumps “Amnesty for illegal immigrants” under other “government takeover” programs.
In a video featured prominently on her site, she goes a step further than Paladino. She still rails against Americans who are lazy and unwilling to work—a classic critique of subsidized poverty—but also implies that it’s harder to get a job because immigrants have taken them over: “We created this dilemma in Southern California, everything we should have been training our 12-year-olds to do, whether it was training our boys to cut the grass or girls to do the housekeeping, we put it off on someone else.” Parker adds that immigrants then “perhaps take advantage of our welfare state” after “birthing children”—implying that children are the collateral that immigrants, like welfare moms before them, are using to coerce money out of the government. Parker’s not the only prominent African-American woman who’s now employing her cachet as an ex-welfare recipient to try to shape the debate about immigration and work: Carol Swain, who also underwent an evangelical conversion, is now a Vanderbilt law professor who’s become an outspoken, conservative critic of immigration.
It’s impossible to plumb Parker’s psychology and deepest-held beliefs and know what exactly has made her so fervent on the issue—black women in the public eye still have to fight pervasive, terrible stereotypes, of course, and perhaps this is a way of getting as far as possible from the one she most fears. It’s clear, though, that she’s willing to use that stereotype of a lazy welfare mother—as personified by her own past self, as presented by her—to suit her own present-day purposes. Parker might have a problem with what she sees as the ugly consequences of welfare, but she certainly doesn’t object to the ugly stereotypes that have grown out of those experiences—in fact, she might be out of business without them. And unlike Eloise Anderson, who was willing to work within the system for specific reforms in the ‘90s, Parker seems more interested in getting an ever bigger bullhorn to broadcast increasingly angry views. That willingness to Frankenstein-ize old conservative tropes means that even if Parker’s congressional future is unlikely, her Tea Party future is probably bright.
Correction, September 22, 2010: This article orginally implied that Parker’s opinion column only appears on Townhall. It is syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service. Return to the corrected sentence.