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Underestimating the 47 percent

Mitt Romney has been duly criticized for what we'll call "The 47 Percent Remark," his dismissive distancing of himself from close to half of the American people, who, he says, "are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to take care of them. ..."

Plenty of commentators have already pointed out how wrongheaded this statement is, in tone, in fact and in spirit. Meanwhile, Romney's apologists struggle with the impossible task of finding a way to make his infelicitous remark reasonably palatable.

I was thinking about this episode a few days ago while I was watching my freshman composition students write in class, hovering over their keyboards in a serious attempt to execute the mysterious and ancient art of writing. As a rule, I don't know much about the personal lives of most of my students. And I'm reluctant to make the same mistake that Romney did, which is to stereotype people about whom I know very little.

But I have a feeling that some of these students are just the sort of people that Romney had in mind when he conceded the votes of one out of every two Americans who, he believes, have already grown so dependent upon the government that they expect it to fulfill their every need.

I imagine that it's been a while since Mitt Romney has had much to do with people like my students. After all, I teach at a community college in South Texas. Almost 60 percent of its students are Hispanic or black; only 30 percent are white. Even though the college works hard to keep its tuition affordable, of its 12,000 students, 64 percent receive some sort of financial aid, including more than $20 million in Pell grants.

Furthermore, some of my students -- especially the single mothers -- benefit from food stamps and other forms of government assistance. And, no doubt, some of them draw unemployment. A few of the older ones are living on a government pension or Social Security, and I suspect that some of my students or their families didn't pay any income tax last year.

I'm not sure if Mitt Romney would call all of these people "freeloaders," "takers" rather than "makers." But I know that they don't think of themselves that way. In fact, about 70 percent of them attend college part time because they're working, some of them 40 hours per week or more.

One strapping fellow missed a class last week to work a couple of long shifts in the oil field. And sometimes my students come to class exhausted after an all-nighter behind the counter of a convenience store. With job, family and school, many of my students work very hard.

Of course, the fact that these students are in college implies that they have more innate initiative and responsibility than Romney appears to be willing to grant to the rest of the 47 percent, the ones who lounge in the safety net that has turned into a hammock.

Perhaps. But the idea that the safety net was ever sumptuous enough to attract many Americans to luxuriate in it is dubious. The really hard labor in our culture has always been done by Hispanics, blacks, other minorities and poor whites. And they've always aspired to something better -- if not for themselves, for their children.

Sometimes our culture encourages this sort of aspiration -- certainly, at least, with lip service. But at other times, subtle mechanisms work to keep people in their places. One of those mechanisms is the myth of the inherent laziness of the poor and non-white, a fabrication essential to the maintenance of the status quo and so pervasive that sometimes even the poor and non-white begin to believe it.

This myth -- tidy, convenient and sweet to the ears of his $50,000-per-plate donors -- helps explain Mitt Romney's casual indifference to nearly half of all Americans.

Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.