Yes, Gingrich’s Food Stamp Rhetoric is Racist
It’s important to be careful when making accusations of racism. Sometimes the charge can pre-empt open dialogue that changes hearts and minds. I’ve been a part of many such productive conversations, so when I say Newt Gingrich’s campaign-trail rhetoric about African Americans and food stamps is racist, it’s not a charge I make lightly. But sugarcoating it would be dishonest.
In case you missed it, Gingrich recently said on the campaign trail that black Americans should “demand jobs, not food stamps.” Gingrich’s remarks – which he has repeated on several occasions – clearly further the myth that intentional reliance on welfare programs and a lack of work ethic are the norm in the African-American community. And it’s an unmistakably racial attack – though Gingrich also makes generic dependency arguments that don’t mention race, African-Americans are the only demographic he calls out specifically.
At last night’s GOP presidential candidates’ debate, on Martin Luther King Day, in a state that fought tooth and nail against the civil rights movement, Gingrich humiliated and rebuked African-American panelist Juan Williams for raising the possibility that Gingrich’s comments could reasonably be construed as demeaning to poor people and minorities. Here’s how it went down:
Gingrich brings the crowd to their feet by ardently defending this myth that poverty is exclusively the result of personal moral deficiencies. And this goes hand-in-glove with his applause line calling the first African-American commander-in-chief “the best food stamp president in American history.” Gingrich even goes so far as to say black people “have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama,” in an effort to intentionally “maximize dependency,” when in fact the program responds automatically to economic downturns.
Absent from the discussion is the fact that the economic collapse caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs through no fault of their own, the fact that job seekers still outnumber job openings four-to-one, and the fact that SNAP literally keeps families from starving.
Gingrich keeps the discussion focused on government handouts, black people’s work ethic (or supposed lack thereof), and the straw man argument that liberals would rather put people on welfare than get jobs. In the face of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Gingrich still wants to talk about the “welfare queen” debate of the 1980s — which was misleading and racially charged enough back then.
As a historian, Gingrich likely knows that American history is rife with examples of conservative Southern white men scoring political points by claiming to act in the best interest of stereotypically infantile blacks who are supposedly incapable of understanding what’s in their own best interest. As an aspiring president and self-proclaimed world historical figure, Gingrich should reject such cynical and racist political scripts, not embrace them.