If last week is any indication, the 2012 presidential election has begun in earnest and it’s going to be ugly. Newt Gingrich (Republican) recently announced his candidacy for presidency and then almost immediately began using racially charged language to score political points. First, he said that he would make the nation “look more like Texas” while Obama would make the nation “look more like Detroit.” Texas is a big state, but I’m guessing that he’s counting on the people he’s talking will conjure the more affluent Dallas County rather than Hidalgo County, which ties The Bronx for the greatest share of people receiving food stamps: 29 percent. Shortly thereafter, Gingrich said he wanted to be the “most successful paycheck president” while contrasting that to President Obama whom he derided “the food stamp president,” The “food stamp” reference suggests one of the racist cartoons (“Obama Bucks”) that circulated during the previous campaign.
David Gregory on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” accused Gingrich of racism for the food stamp comment. Gingrich denies any racism. Ta-Nehisi Coates writing at The Atlantic points out that, of course, there are no racists, at least not in mainstream American politics.
In American political rhetoric, there is a long history of using the language of public assistance – “welfare” or “food stamps” – as codes for racial slurs. Former President Ronald Reagan, with the help of Lee Atwater, was a master at this. Reagan once referred to “strapping young bucks” who used food stamps to “buy T-bone steaks.” It was Reagan who, in 1976, introduced the term “welfare queen” into popular culture and this slur continues to have a devastating effect on women of color who must rely on public assistance and on public opinion. In my first book (White Lies, Routledge, 1997), I demonstrated how the language of mainstream politics connects seamlessly with the overt racism of white supremacist publications. (And, it’s not just white people that engage in this, as I noted in that book, Clarence Thomas referred to his own sister as a “welfare queen” when he was testifying before Congress to become a Supreme Court Justice. She wasn’t, for the record.)
Gingrich was engaging in (barely) coded racism, as Joan Walsh writing at Salon points out. While it’s certainly possible to oppose the idea of welfare or food stamps without pushing a racist political agenda, the fact is that for most people words like “welfare” and “food stamps” are racially coded. Even though the reality is that the majority of those receiving food stamps are white, and increasingly the working poor, meaning they are employed at jobs that don’t pay enough to buy food, “food stamps” and “welfare” are code for “black” and “poor” and “undeserving.” There’s research to support this claim that this language is racially coded for most Americans.
Martin Gilens’ book Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy (University of Chicago Press, 2000) takes a look at this question systematically. Part of what Gilens finds is that media portrayals of the poor are heavily skewed toward portraying blacks rather than whites as the symbolic representation of poverty. In his content analysis of mainstream news magazines, he found that:
- 62% of stories about poverty featured African Americans
- 65% of network television news stories about welfare featured African Americans
- fewer African Americans were featured in “sympathetic” stories about poverty and welfare.
Gilens also found that the belief that “blacks are lazy” was a strong predictor of support for cutting welfare. Sixty-five percent of whites who hold this belief support eliminating welfare, compared to 35% who believe “blacks are very hard working” said they wanted to cut welfare.
And, wrongly held beliefs about who the majority of welfare recipients are also affects peoples’ support for welfare. For those who (incorrectly) believed that the majority on welfare are black, 64% think that most people on welfare “do not really need it.” Gilens argues persuasively, and with data, that the language about welfare, food stamps, and public opinion about supporting it, are imbued with racially charged ideas that are not based in reality.
I’m guessing Newt Gingrich (and his handlers) know all this. MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow contends that Gingrich is “pretend-running” so that he can fuel his consulting business that relies on his appearing to be a viable political force. Jon Stewart, meanwhile, has lampooned Gingrich’s flaccid attempt at running for president.
From where I sit, satire may be the best response to someone like Gingrich who is clearly playing the fool.
For the sake of argument, let’s take Gingrich at his word. I don’t, of course, but this is just for the sake of argument.
1 – Obama’s mother did spend a few years on welfare. But if that’s where we take it, that reminds people, those who think at least, that his mother was white. I can’t remember if they were on food stamps while she attended college in Hawaii or as she did NGO work for women in Indonesia. But it’s one of the two, right?
Is that what Gingrich had in mind?
2 – The number of people dependent on food stamps has gone up since the beginning of Obama’s presidency. I guess that’s what Gingrich may have really been referring to. Meaning, he meant to say that while Obama wrecked the economy, he’ll fix it. Right? But Gingrich’s problem trying to make that point is that millions more white people went on welfare, millions of whom either had jobs or just lost jobs. Welfare practically saved their lives. And while it’s not Obama’s fault that they went on welfare, it is because Obama fought for it that welfare was available. Right? Of the people who’ve gone on welfare as a result of the recession, relatively few will blame Obama. (I hope.) This kinda of rhetoric may help Gingrich in the primaries, emphasis on may. A lot of people got really upset when they realized/heard that Republicans wanted, to borrow a phrase, to get their guv’ment hands on folk’s medicare. So that type of anti-public assistance, anti-government programs for the poor and needy rhetoric may not go as far as it once did.
And as for the bailout that went primarily to Wall St rather than “main street” – it’s been the Republicans who’ve blocked or held up attempts to increase gov’t small business lending and it was Republicans who blocked capping Wall St executive pay and attaching more strings to TARP funds.
So no matter how you look at it, Gingrich stuck his foot in his mouth. But anyone who thinks his comments were motivated at least in part to Obama’s blackness probably already thought Newt was racist. That comment only helps him with the harder core base unless he’s able to turn it around into a reverse-racism issue.
So yeah, if time is limited to a 5-sec sound bite, satire is the only response. But if we have time for a more in-depth response, Dems and Obama could actually turn this to their advantage. Emphasis on could. Dems don’t have the best record with turning situations to their advantage.