Remember when Newt Gingrich, weeks ago in the Republican debates, informed us that black children raised in poverty needed a “work ethic”?

Their parents and guardians, Newt claimed, lived on government support and therefore couldn’t teach their children a “work ethic.”

So Newt offered to give black 13-year-olds some part-time jobs as janitors at their schools.

I’m not making this up. The news coverage was wide.

Among the many flaws in Newt’s thinking, let’s look at his glaring assumption that African-Americans are lazy.

In the light of my family memoir Into the Briar Patch, I can see how this stereotype was born during slavery and Jim Crow. Growing up, I learned that the South’s rich vocabulary for laziness was often applied to African-Americans: shiftless, no-account, trifling, good-for-nothing, lackadaisical, half-hearted, slow as molasses.

In the South, slaves labored in the fields from sunup to sundown. Yet somehow the blacks were the ones who got called lazy.

What a devastating irony.

Does this contradictory stereotype make any sense? Not factually. Psychologically, though, it serves the culture of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and today’s racism.

Southern planters bought  Africans to do the hardest work, the backbreaking toil of cultivating and harvesting crops. If whites had tried to grow their own crops, our nation would never have built its stupendous wealth—or so goes the common wisdom, and one “justification” for slavery.

In return for hard labor, chattel slaves received sub-standard room and board, along with a disturbing range of indignities and atrocities, including the frequent destruction of families and the sexual coercion of black women.

In researching my memoir I’ve deduced that during slavery, the families of white planters grew increasingly nervous about being called “lazy.” After all, they did not work in the fields. They had to bury their resultant guilt. Among my ancestors, “lazy” was one of the worst words you could call a white person. The harder the blacks slaved away at stoop labor, the more uneasy whites became about that word “lazy.”

A guilty workaholism was bequeathed to my mother, born in the 1910’s. Her life was a frenzy of work, and she passed on that mandate to her children. She often asked us, “What are you doing right now to justify your existence?”

Thus it seems perversely natural, if unconscious, that whites would shift, or project, that charge of “lazy” onto blacks, to relieve their own anxiety. So African-Americans under slavery bore not only the brunt of the physical toil but also the stigma of being called “lazy.”

We still have this term today: slave driver. It suggests the driver is accusing the slave of laziness.

This unjust stigma lasted through sharecropping, Jim Crow, segregation, and right down to the present day, when African-Americans are often still pre-judged as “lazy.” A more popular current term, also prejudicial, is “the culture of poverty.” To many, this phrase means essentially that blacks just can’t help being lazy, because it’s in their culture. Seriously?

A few years ago, I asked a second cousin what it had been like for our great-grandfather to own slaves. Here is his answer: “Well, sir, it was hard work, like everything else.”

This relative wanted to assure me right off the bat that our white family had worked very, very hard. If anyone was lazy, it was, by silent implication, the blacks.

This stereotype of “lazy” draws African-Americans into one Catch-22 after another today. If they study hard, they can succeed, except that the run-down public schools for those “lazy” blacks cannot really support hard study. If African-Americans work hard, they can succeed, except that jobs for blacks, far inferior to those for whites, pay minimal wages. Beginning with slavery, whites have found all sorts of excuses to deny these stigmatized “lazy” people the true fruits of their labors.

Black people have become deeply discouraged, and no wonder. The stereotype “lazy” becomes vicious in its application. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Newt Gingrich hardly offers young black people a fair return for work. His idea is to distribute one janitorial salary over 30 black teenagers, for mopping school floors and scrubbing school bathrooms. That’s insane—and it’s an insanity rooted in the history of this country.

Schemes like Newt’s are meant to fool all those anxious white people who need to think that they, themselves are naturally the best, hardest, most deserving workers. Even rich hedge fund managers, I hear, truly believe that they exhaust themselves with hard work.  It’s never us, but the others—the blacks, the poor—who are lazy.


This is “Big Mary” and Lucia Kirven. “Big Mary” was the cook for Hugh Kirven’s family in the early 1900s, when Lucia was a child.  This photo shows a tearful reunion in 1964.