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.