But race often distorts their application. When conservative politicians talk about reducing “dependency” on government, they usually mean reliance on programs like food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing assistance, and Medicaid, all of which disproportionately benefit African Americans. They pay less attention to the roughly $20 billion a year that the federal government pays farmers. Or the 1872 law that allows mining companies to lease federal land for $5 an acre and keep whatever they dig up. Or Supplemental Security Income, otherwise known as disability. These forms of dependency, which offer outsize benefits to white people, elicit comparatively little right-wing outrage.
Similarly, many conservatives demanded harsher sentencing during the largely African American crack epidemic, yet now show far less enthusiasm for imprisoning opioid addicts—most of whom are white. For years, conservatives tried to preserve the traditional family by outlawing same-sex marriage. They didn’t try to outlaw heterosexual divorce. Senator Ted Cruz has called defending religious freedom his “life’s passion.” But not when it comes to Muslims. In 2015, he reintroduced the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act, which could have, among other things, empowered the government to close mosques.
There are, to be sure, right-leaning intellectuals who would welcome the uniform application of conservative tough love. But advocating the mass imprisonment of white opioid users, the end of farm subsidies, and a crackdown on easy divorce would likely break the Republican Party. So GOP politicians often end up demanding more self-reliance and moral responsibility from black, female, LGBT, and immigrant Americans than from their own white, male, straight, native-born supporters. “Racism,” Ta‑Nehisi Coates has written in these pages, “is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” It is exactly this racialized disparity in sympathy and skepticism that plagues many conservative policies today.