The GOP candidates for President recently gathered for a debate to help South Carolina (as well as national) party members decide who to support for the Republican nomination for President. On the day the nation celebrated the legacy and life of Martin Luther King, Jr., there were certain moments of the debate that seemed to have a racial tone. To some, the GOP is just continuing its insensitive (or outright racist) tendencies; however, there is more to this subject that needs investigation.
The back-and-forth between Juan Williams and Newt Gingrich has drawn a lot of attention. First, Gingrich doubled down on a previous stance that work is the answer to rising out of poverty. He insisted that the focus should be on giving young people the opportunity to learn how to have a job and work hard. He gave an example of giving a union janitorial job to young kids in school and claimed you could employ 30 kids with the pay given to one union janitor (thanks to the Chicago Sun-Times for posting the transcript). Juan’s question and a lot of the post-debate response circles around the implication that blacks are where they are because they do not have solid work ethic. Of course, this response ignores the fact that there are certain professional skills that are learned through having an entry-level job. Considering that the hardest hit group by this recession is black youths (as of July, around 31% unemployment rate for black youths aged 16-24 compared to the general population unemployment rate of roughly 9% at the same time), there is little doubt that an entire generation of young blacks will be lacking in some of the professional skills of which Gingrich spoke. Also, note that Gingrich proposed an out-of-the-box solution to get more black youths working. His proposal of transferring jobs from high-paid union members to at-risk youth remains unaddressed by most of his media critics – he did not just flatly say get a job, he made a proposal of how policy could change to make that happen. Do we not agree that we need out-of-the-box solutions to address lack of employment? Do we not hear about social programs to teach youths about job skills (what to wear, importance of promptness, respect for authority, etc.)? Why is it that a Republican – albeit with a high level of crassness – is criticized for saying basically the same thing?
Next, Gingrich used a term, unapologetically, to describe Barack Obama. He referred to Obama as a “food stamp President.” On the surface, due to connotations of the term “food stamp,” it appears that Gingrich was attempting to insult blacks. Consider, however, that Gingrich specifically stated his rationale for using that term was because more people – black and otherwise – are on food stamps under the Obama administration than any other President. It is fair to debate if the blame should go to Obama; however, the connection of the statement with race lies solely with Gingrich’s accusers. Gingrich was on NBC’s “Meet The Press” and host David Gregory asked if he thought that was a racist term. At no point does Gingrich mention race. If the term “food stamp” is to be connected with blacks, then that connection was made by Gregory. Here lies the critical problem: we fail to have real discussions on important issues because some choose to see everything through the prism of race. TOC does admit that Gingrich would later connect food stamps and blacks in New Hampshire; however, he makes this comment after his Gregory interview. Furthermore, Gingrich’s point made on Jan 6 in New Hampshire is simply that public assistance should be secondary to getting a job. Would it have been more palatable for Newt to say blacks need a “hand-up” not a “hand-out?” One is more politically correct than the other, but the point does not change.
To be fair, TOC has to consider the reality of the situation. Both of the above examples, along with Santorum’s implication that lack of social values (see the transcript where Santorum alludes to childbirth out of wedlock as a driver of poverty) is critical in keeping blacks poor, are meant to be “tough love” solutions for a community that needs to “fix itself.” The solution to problems in the black community will not be solved with just a “hand out,” but also cannot be solved with just “tough love” either. A critical driver of disparity in the black community has always been and continues to be a lack of resources. Pushing “tough love” solutions by itself is not racist, but it’s naïve to think that this approach is not meant to appease a subconsciously racist undertone among a few in the conservative right. Newt Gingrich knew that the use of the term “food stamps” was politically risky; however, it was also calculated: He was not going to be concerned with the appearance of political correctness, even if that meant he was going to be insensitive to a voting bloc. While some choose to focus on this insensitivity and Gingrich’s desire to capture the vote of that xenophobic faction of Republicans, it does not change the fact that “tough love” is part of the solution.
It is important to remember that this is an emergency situation. An entire generation of blacks will be affected long-term with the effects of this recession. We do not have time to worry about connotations and innuendos and politically-charged accusations of racism. The 2012 election should produce a national discussion around this issue. Unfortunately, as I have said in an earlier post, when Democrats can take you for granted and Republicans can concede your vote to Democrats, your agenda does not make it into the mainstream discussion.
Perhaps if we as a race open up to new ideas without getting bogged down into an echo chamber of “racism, racism, racism” against anyone that is not in the same party as Obama, we can get there. TOC can only hope.