Black History at USD Project
The Nixon and Regan precedencies created harmful stereotypes that proved to have lasting damaging effects. Policies like the war on drugs, anti-affirmative action strategies, and rhetoric downplaying the racism in America like “reverse discrimination” and “color-blindness.” Another very detrimental stereotype manufactured during this era was the idea of the ‘welfare queen’ that propagated the harmful conceptions of black women that constructed lasting effects that we still see today. In this essay, I will be exploring the misconceptions of black women produced in the 1980s and how black women like Dr. Mae Jemison are still seeing the side effects forty years later. Dr. Jemison’s story is a story of breaking out of the mold white people constructed to suppress the black community and she is a model to not only show that liberation from of the mold is achievable but also a proof that black women were never truly anything white suppressors in politics broadcasted and propagated.
The scapegoating of black women however is tied very closely to the economic crisis during the 1970s and 1980s. After accomplishing goals like the Civil Rights Act and Amendments to Social Security, millions of Americans received welfare due to the civil rights protests and riots of the 1960s and 1970s. However, the economic crisis of the 1970s proved to cause extreme injure to the mending economy. Large corporations left cities and closed factories and “every major northeastern and midwestern city lost jobs. Philadelphia, for example, lost 150,000 jobs — one-sixth of its employment base.” The job market became extremely competitive as stagnation only persisted which allowed populism profit-oriented economy that Regan was creating very alluring. However, one of Regan’s anti-poverty political strategies to restore the economy was that no one should be living off the taxpayer’s dime. The government accredited the problem of poverty to the individual instead of the system while also demonizing specifically black women for abusing the welfare system, which then was another way the government could criminalize black people. He attributed the economic crisis to people living on welfare and not contributing to the monetary market— a seemingly benign political and economic aspiration, but he specifically ascribed the economic calamity on black women living on welfare by using the story of Linda Taylor to support his fabricated claims.
In the fall of 1974, The Chicago Tribune anointed Linda Taylor the ”welfare queen,” reporting that she received public aid checks and food stamps while driving a Cadillac and planning a Hawaiian vacation. Regan ran with this story and was at the crux of his election campaign and now he thought he held the answer and fix to the chaos of the nation— even though “governments that provide more generous welfare benefits have lower incarceration rates… while governments that spend less on welfare incarcerate a larger share.” Nevertheless Regan drew the caricature of the ‘welfare queen’ for the nation to believe and with it came a demonization of black women who were now seen as thieves and expert criminals stealing from the government and the tax paying citizens. “[S]he is portrayed as being content to sit around and collect welfare, shunning work and passing on her bad values to her offspring. The welfare mother represents a woman of low morals and uncontrolled sexuality.”
The racist stereotype that “the greedy black woman getting rich off taxpayer money,” was a scripted narrative attempting to demonize black women, but it was not the first. The stereotype of ‘mammy’ that arose out of the antebellum post-slavery era that portrayed black women in the media as obedient and subordinate nurses obedient to the white family they work for. She appears with a bandanna covering her hair and as an overweight docile, loyal maid who is desexualized and extremely protective over the big house. She’s never sexualized because she cannot be seen as ‘desired’ by the man of the house and a threat his wife. The similarities between the ‘welfare queen’ and the ‘mammy’ are distinct in how white propogandist draw pictures of black women to place inside the minds of the public that persist for decades. However, women like Dr. Mae Jemison prove how wrong these racist misconceptions are and how much damage these misconceptions cause to the black community.
Dr. Mae Jemison’s story begins with her fascination of the planets, stars, and the world from a very young age. She took her fascination to another level when she studied all aspects of the Apollo program knowing in and out when the shuttles would take off, where and what each mission was going to accomplish. But she wanted to accomplish something for herself— she wanted to go to space.
Dr. Jemison mentioned how vital support systems are when it comes to achieving your dreams. Her family stood as a believer in the young Jemison’s goals and helped her take the necessary steps so she could one apply to be an astronaut. Paired with her own deep-seated aspirations and firm beliefs that we have full control over our lives and what we do with our time in our lives, she was able to get the best education and proactively stride to her goal. However, for the purpose of this essay I want to focus on her support system and how her positive outlook on life and the glass ceiling she would break through, was a driving factor in her success.
Jemison has been quoted for mentioning the proverb: “A kitchen knife cannot carve its own handle.” In other words, it does not matter how much potential someone has or how smart or driven they are unless they are supported. Her family living in the south side of Chicago was her handle and they created a safe space for her creativity to grow and flourish. She was able to prosper when she had support which led her to attend Stanford at sixteen years old, study chemical engineering and African American history and earn her PhD in both, and then become the first black woman in space. And after NASA she continued to believe she had more to contribute and was empowered to start a tech company, become a professor at Dartmouth, and lead numerous groundbreaking projects in the interstellar field. She kept believing in herself and remembered that other people believed in her too. She said “you have to believe you have the right to be someplace,” and over the decades of black oppression believing you are not the stereotype propagated is a profound struggle that I cannot speak on but will rather learn from via the stories from the course and people like Dr. Jemison. I will comment on the relevance of harmful media and how that interconnects with the sense of confidence to succeed and inspiration to facilitate great change.
The harmful caricatures like the ‘welfare queen’ and ‘mammy’ and the countless other stereotypes meant to oppress the black community limit and undermine the black experience and produces a seemingly-prophetic nature of the future for young girls and boys who like Dr. Jemison dream of reaching the stars yet are told by society those stars are impossible to touch. If the caricature little kids grow up knowing is a seemingly pre-destined form of how society will see them, I could not imagine how much that limits the self-confidence to succeed that Dr. Jemison so fortunately possessed. Think of how much easier it would be for young black girls and boys to reach their true dreams if they had a caricature of a black astronaut with two degrees and a list of triumphs under her belt to look up to. Dr. Jemison’s success came from self-determination and a safe place for her imagination to flourish in. This is why it is so vital to recognize how destructive these stereotypes are and why re-writing racist narratives that correctly represent the black community is so essential to the success of all little black girls who like young Mae Jemison, dream of reaching the stars.
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 Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008), 518.
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (African American Review, vol. 45, 2012), p. 101.
 Josh Levin, “How the ‘Welfare Queen’ Was Born,” (New York Times, 2019).
 Beckett, Katherine and Bruce Western, Punishment & Society, “Governing Social Marginality,” (US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2001). p. 44-45.
 Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought, (Routledge, New York, 2022), p. 178.
 Levin, “How the ‘Welfare Queen’ Was Born.”