By Tanner Minot, Student Writer for The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice
On Saturday, Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Speaker of the House and consummate provocateur, won the South Carolina primary and catapulted into the thick of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Gingrich’s victory, the result of a stunning comeback over the suddenly reeling front-runner, Mitt Romney, marks just his latest reintroduction into a political climate defined by dishonesty, bombast, and, at worst, outright hatred. Based on his conduct over the past several weeks, Gingrich should feel right at home.
A recent example came in last Monday’s debate—on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, of all days—in which Gingrich, after claiming that black Americans “should demand jobs, not food stamps,” labeled Barack Obama “the Food Stamp President,” emphasizing that more Americans have been put on food stamps during the President’s first term than under any previous president. The debate moderator’s follow-up, which pressed the question whether it might be reasonable to perceive Gingrich’s claim as “insulting … particularly to black Americans,” was met with boos from the crowd. Gingrich responded, flatly, “No. I don’t see that.” He went on to suggest, as an apparent remedy to poverty, employing poor children in janitorial jobs, and cited his daughter, who got her first job at 13 (never mind that this would violate South Carolina’s current child labor laws, which defines as “oppressive” child employment under the age of 14. The crowd, with no visible trace of shame, gave Gingrich a standing ovation.
It might be easy to shrug this moment off if it was clear Gingrich saw it as a gaffe, or if the collective Republican response was one of embarrassment. But this was not the case. Instead, Gingrich’s performance has become a rallying cry, fodder for campaign advertising. Consider this stunning response from the Wall Street Journal:
“Next to the election of a black president, we’d say that Gingrich’s standing O [in response to the Food Stamp segment] was the most compelling dramatization of racial progress so far this century.”
How does one unpack this preposterous claim? Perhaps, on the one hand, it’s a useful reminder of the progress we have yet to make. For is it not better that our nation’s collective ugliness is proclaimed openly, rather than left to fester beneath the surface? Well, in the long run, maybe. But not today, when Gingrich, by some indications, is now the Republican frontrunner, and could be a mere scandal away from the presidency. I, for one, prefer my civic reminders with slightly less potential for catastrophe.
In the end, what we have here are two deep-seeded problems. The first is the obvious racist innuendo embodied in the claim, and the uncomfortable realization that Gingrich, and those who support him, have no compunction about stirring the cauldrons of racial resentment. This was not a slip of the tongue; rather, it was, as one Atlantic Monthly writer put it, a “statement of aggression .” Gingrich could have (and has) attacked President Obama’s controversial health care plan, his aggressive and at times lawless foreign policy, and any number of topics about which reasonable people can disagree in good faith. Instead, he has unabashedly trotted out two of the most provocative racial buzzwords of our time, in the midst of a deep recession which President Obama inherited from his Republican predecessor.
This brings us to the second problem: Gingrich’s despicable claim is misleading in every way. Let’s start with the fact that, in a recession, people have less money to spend. Food does not pay for itself. Add this to the rising costs of education, health care, transportation, etc., and we see an increasing number of Americans who, often through no fault of their own, need help to keep from going hungry. Food stamps are not a salary for the lazy unemployed; rather, they are often what stands in the way of starvation—a condition that, in a civilized society, we have rightly deemed unacceptable. Yes, it’s true that food stamps have been on the rise during Obama’s first term. But perhaps Gingrich might consider that this is due to deeper problems than abstract (black?) Americans who are content to live “on the dole.” The rub, of course, is that Gingrich already knows.
Months ago I wrote that we should focus on local issues rather than presidential politics. While I hold fast to that view, from a perspective of civic participation, it is no answer to ignore the gaping wounds in American society that national elections so reliably expose. We should start by calmly laying out the facts: Newt Gingrich, a scourge to progressive causes everywhere, is knowingly exploiting racial resentment to further his and his party’s maniacal and nefarious ends.