The first time Republicans really, really scared me was in 1964. I can't remember where I got the idea, but in my then-11-year-old mind I believed that if Barry Goldwater won the election against Lyndon Johnson he was going to send all the black people back to Africa. Back then, I thought of Africa as a scary place where nearly naked people ran through the jungle chased by lions. Now I wouldn't mind getting a trip to the "dark" continent at government expense.
The second time was in 1992, when Pat Buchanan gave his famous "culture war" speech at the Republican convention in Houston. I was sitting in a motor home parked in the woods of northern Minnesota, swatting ineffectually at giant black flies as I stared at the grainy black-and-white image of Buchanan delivering the speech in which he likened taking "back our culture" to the troops taking back Los Angeles from rioting blacks in the wake of the Rodney King decision. I was flabbergasted that such openly racist rhetoric could be expressed during a political convention.
I guess I was naïve because it's happening again — the racial pandering, not my fear. Once again Republican candidates and their surrogates are playing the race card in a bid to solidify support in the conservative base. And as the primaries move into South Carolina and Florida, part of the Southern bloc of states that turned their backs on the Democrats after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I don't expect them to let up.
Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have been the most overt offenders. Last month, Gingrich stirred the pot with comments about poor ("black") children having no work habits. He recently asserted that President Obama was the "best food stamp president in American history." Just in case people didn't know whom he was referring to, he went on to say that he was willing to go to the NAACP national convention to tell them "why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." Then he went to a black church Sunday to say his comments had been misconstrued. I don't think so.
Santorum referenced food stamps in saying that he didn't want to make "black people's lives better by giving them someone else's money." Santorum has denied use of the word "black" in the statement, saying he was tongue-tied or stuttered or something — I don't know, maybe he burped — and that he actually said "blah people." So now we have the "blahs," that's a new one.
Amazingly enough, Santorum made his comments in Sioux City, Iowa, heart of Woodbury County where 2.4 percent of the population is black, and where 13 percent of the people are on food stamps. It's hard to say why that was even relevant there.
Gingrich and Santorum pulled the food stamp argument right out of the Ronald Reagan playbook. In 1976 Reagan created the fictitious Cadillac-driving Chicago "welfare queen" who had 80 names, 30 addresses and 12 Social Security numbers in order to collect numerous welfare checks. Reagan never identified the welfare queen's race, but he spoke in a code that everybody understands.
"The way that I see it is that whenever Republicans start using rhetoric about welfare, about poor — this crop is more overt about naming the target of that rhetoric — what these things constitute is symbolic racism. Symbolic racism tries to mask the reality of structural racism," says Austin Jackson, assistant professor of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University. Jackson's work focuses on writing and rhetoric in African-American culture. "It's a racist dog whistle to appeal to a large portion of their white constituencies.
"What we see, from Republican candidates in particular, is used strategically to hide systems of racial exploitation and justice. The white constituency responds very well to this sort of coded racialized rhetoric."
The message in the rhetoric is that black people are a bunch of lazy freeloaders. But the food stamp association is not only racist, it is flat-out wrong. According to a 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 35 percent of food stamp recipients are white, 22 percent are black, 10 percent are Hispanic, 4 percent are Native American, 2 percent are Asian and 19 percent are of unknown race or ethnicity. Many of them are the working poor. If you exclude children (47 percent) and retirees (8 percent), the majority of food stamp recipients have jobs. They just don't make enough to get by on. That's not to deny that African-Americans make up a larger proportion of food stamp recipients than in the general population; a legacy of hiring and wage discrepancies, and discrimination are at the root of that.
Republican presidential hopefuls Ron Paul and Rick Perry also have their own racial albatrosses around their necks. Paul has had to defend himself for racist statements in newsletters that went out under his name in the 1980s and 1990s; he didn't write or read them, he now claims, although he made no such claims when challenged on the newsletters in the '90s. A 1992 newsletter claimed that year's L.A. riots ended "when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks." Perry recently named Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to head up his Arizona campaign. The U.S. Justice Department recently concluded that Arpaio's office was guilty of "massive civil rights violations against Latinos," not to mention failure to investigate more than 400 sex crimes. Perry also came under fire last year when it was revealed that the family hunting lodge was once named "Niggerhead," and the epithet was painted on a big rock on the property.
Front-runner Mitt Romney has been more subtle by attacking Obama's "entitlement society." Yet when the question of electability comes up, he is obviously considered the white guy who can save the country from the Obama abomination.
The problem is that, regardless of the truth, once a candidate makes a racially disparaging remark there are people who believe it.
"Americans don't understand the nature of language," Jackson says. "They need to give more attention to the centrality of language in shaping our perceptions of everyday life. We need greater attention to the role that language has in masking these overtly racist sentiments."
There will be plenty of that in the coming months. Remember the last presidential election cycle, when Obama had to disavow the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and was accused of not being American — not to mention the various attacks for being Muslim, socialist and lazy (read "black"). We've recently seen a narrative painting Michelle Obama as a big-ass, angry black woman. I don't doubt that she is sometimes angry; she exhibits the full range of normal human emotions and from where she sits the stakes are high.
Republicans aren't the only ones who play this game. Bill Clinton had his Sister Souljah moment. But with a sitting president who is African-American the crap is already getting out of hand. By the time the general election comes around, it's going to be downright nasty. Republicans obviously have little intention of engaging blacks other than throwing the embarrassing Herman Cain at us (come on, a candidate who sings hymns on request). That's their kind of black man.
It's enough to give me a serious case of the blahs.
Postscript: In Tuesday night's debate (after MT had gone to press), Gingrich scored big points with the conservative South Carolina audience by not backing down when moderator Juan Williams, of Fox News, brought up Gingrich's food stamp comments, and his assertions that schools should hire poor children as janitors in order to help them create a work ethic. According to reports, the crowd went wild, giving Grinch-rich a standing ovation.
First of all, the claim that Obama has put more people on food stamps than any other president in American history is debatable. The elections-claim referees at Politifact.com rate it a "half truth." There are more Americans on food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program — SNAP) during Obama's administration than under any of his predecessors, but that's a continuation of an upward trend he inherited from the Bush administration. Two factors are involved: more lenient qualification rules (rewritten during the Bush years) and the worsening economy. On the second point, the Politifact.com reports:
Obviously, the rise in food stamps is a direct consequence of the serious recession that began in December 2007 — more than a year before Obama took office. It's hard to determine how much blame Obama deserves compared to his predecessor, President George W. Bush, but the experts we spoke to, conservative and liberal, agree that Obama inherited a serious economic situation.
Part of the reason it's tricky to divvy up blame is that there is typically a lag time before an upturn in the broader economy begins to show up in decreased SNAP usage. The monthly growth has slowed over the last three months, and if current trends continue, it could start declining in a month or two.
With all that in mind I wonder that if Bush made it easier for people to get food stamps, should Obama be blamed for people using them? Maybe Bush was the "best food stamp" president.
Another point is that most adults who receive assistance already have jobs but don't make enough to get by on. So if Gingrich wants to get people off food stamps he should be championing higher wages. However I still believe that rhetorically coupling Obama and food stamps, particularly given the history here, is indeed using the racist dog whistle to remind conservatives that the president is black and he's going to give all your money to "those people."
Gingrich also got applause for standing by his assertion that school children should do janitorial work in their schools. Putting aside child labor issues, what about the janitors they will put out of work? This idea would take an already low-paying job and make it even lower. If the janitor wasn't already on food stamps, he certainly will be after the kids take his job away, not to mention the unemployment compensation.
Finally, I get the sense that with Williams being an African-American, the audience eagerly consumed the aspect of Gingrich standing up to a black man on a racial issue as a surrogate for how Gingrich would handle Obama in a general election. Indeed that may be the most powerful result of this exchange for the former speaker of the House — the perception that he will stand up to the black man.