This year, Newt Gingrich has run the most explicitly white supremacist campaign for high public office since David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana in 1991. (For more on Duke, a former Klansman turned politician and polemicist, see part three of my essay, “How Did Blacks Become Democrats and Republicans Become Racists?” elsewhere on this blog.) Gingrich reached a low, (though he would later out-Gingrich himself), in August 2011 when he called Obama a “food stamp president.” His full remarks were as follows:
"You don't get out of 9.2% unemployment, you don't get out of -- today it was announced [that] the largest number of Americans [are] on food stamps in history. I've said now for six months, this is the most effective food stamp President in history. That sounds like it is an attack, it's just a statement of fact. It's just that his administration kills jobs. They are driving Americans onto food stamps. Most Americans would rather have a paycheck." (For more on these comments, see http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2011/08/05/gingrich_obama_most_effective_food_stamp_president_in_history.html. )
This is a clear example of racial code words. For a long time, the American media has unfairly linked African Americans and Latinos with dependency on welfare, food stamps, and other government programs. The Yale political scientist Martin Gilens analyzed in detail news content from major print and electronic media from 1988-1994 and found that close to 100 percent of the photographs in magazines like Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report portrayed the poor as being African American and that 65 percent of all network television news stories about welfare featured African Americans. ( See Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Policy.) The idea of the black “welfare queen” exploiting wrongheaded liberal social programs in order to avoid work and rip off hard-toiling white taxpayers has been part of Republican racial mythology since the 1970s. Ronald Reagan concocted a phony story about a woman supposedly from the south side of Chicago (an African American neighborhood) during his 1976 primary challenge to Gerald Ford:
"She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000."
When asked, Reagan could never produce the name of his “welfare queen” or any evidence she existed. (For more on this, see part three of my essay “Why Blacks Become Democrats.”) Nevertheless, Republicans believed the story and have ever since. And it has repeatedly proven a useful tall tale in motivating downwardly mobile, disenfranchised white voters to show up on Election Day.
As one scholar, Patricia Hill Collins put it, the prototypical welfare queen in this narrative is “portrayed as being content to sit around and collect welfare, shunning work and passing on her bad values to her offspring. The welfare mother represents a woman of low morals and uncontrolled sexuality.” (See her 2008 book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment.) Republicans like Reagan and Gingrich happily encourage angry white male supporters to use their ballot to get even with the welfare queens by electing politicians who will cut off their supposedly undeserved subsidies.
In 1996, at the urging of then-House Speaker Gingrich, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act,” the so-called “welfare to work” law. Bill Clinton embraced the conservative legislation as part of his effort to prove he was a “new Democrat” not beholden to the party’s old liberal shibboleths. The law ended welfare as an entitlement and, among other provisions, placed a five-year lifetime cap on welfare benefits. The legislation slashed welfare rolls, but many women receiving aid were single mothers who, once cut off from assistance, were unable to afford day care even as they were forced into low-wage jobs that forced them to be away from their children. Such mothers found themselves denied aid at the same time that their miserable wages made it impossible to meet demanding monthly budgets.
Following passage of the law, University of California at Los Angeles political scientist Franklin D. Gilliam wanted to test how white audiences reacted emotionally to televised images of black women portrayed as relying on public aid. Gilliam created tapes of simulated news broadcasts and showed them to audiences. As he describes the experiment:
“[T]he only difference between what two groups of viewers saw involved images of race and gender. Participants watched one of four television news stories about the impact of welfare reform on a woman named Rhonda Germaine. In the story that we created for our experimental news broadcast, Rhonda worries about the impact of the new welfare on her ability to care for her children. A still picture of Rhonda appears at two points in the story: each time it appears, it remains on the screen for five seconds.
“Our viewers were randomly assigned to four groups. The first watched this news story with Rhonda cast as a white woman. The second group saw the same story with Rhonda depicted as an African American woman. The third group watched the welfare story without seeing any visual representation of Rhonda. The final was a control group that did not watch any TV news broadcast about welfare.”
The two women portraying Rhonda were dressed the same way and both were overweight. Among the white respondents, 80 percent correctly recalled having seen the face of the African American Rhonda. Fewer than half remembered having seen the picture of the white Rhonda. Whites grew more hostile to welfare and to African Americans when exposed to the story about the black Rhonda. As Gilliam writes,
“[Exposure to the story about the black Rhonda] increased opposition to welfare spending [by white audience members surveyed afterwards] by five percent and showed a 10 percent rise in attribution of cause [for poverty] to individual failings. Likewise, white participants who watched the welfare story with the black Rhonda were more likely to hold negative views of African Americans than those who didn’t have a visual cue.” (see Gilliam, “The ‘Welfare Queen Experiment’: How Viewers React to Images of African American Mothers on Welfare,” Neiman Reports, The Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, Vol. 53., No. 2, Summer 1999. This article is available at http://escholarship.org/uc/item/17m7r1rq#page-1)
Politicians market test in advance every syllable they plan to utter before the public. A politician who has always thrived on social divisions, Gingrich was well aware of the deep psychological associations his consistently monochromatic white audiences would have if they heard the phrase “food stamps” associated with an African American president. Gingrich knew his listeners would believe that dependency on food stamps is a uniquely black dysfunction, and that a black president had made the number of people relying on this costly “socialist” program skyrocket.
So what are the facts about Obama and food stamps? First of all, food stamp usage went up in the past five years because of an history-making recession that took place under Republican President George W. Bush. More people enrolled in the food stamp program under Bush than have so far under Obama, according to the non-partisan FactCheck.Org website. As the curators note, the recession began in October 2007 (and Bush didn’t leave office until January 2009.) In the year before Obama took office, 4.4. million people were added to the national food stamp rolls, a tripling of the 1.4 million added in 2007. As they write at FactCheck.Org:
“[U]nder President George W. Bush the number of recipients rose by nearly 14.7 million. Nothing before comes close to that.
“And under Obama, the increase so far has been 14.2 million. To be exact, the program has so far grown by 444,574 fewer recipients during Obama’s time in office than during Bush’s.” And, as the recession has eased off in the Obama years, the number of food stamp recipients has declined. Food stamp rolls dropped by 43,528 this past October.
More important to this blog is the white perception of who is on food stamps. Most are not the black “welfare queen” derided and despised in GOP myth. In fact, children represent the largest number of recipients – 47 percent. According to the Department of Agriculture, 41 percent of those receiving food stampsx have jobs – they are the “working poor” whose serf-like wages are not adequate to pay grocery bills. The USDA estimates that only 22 percent of food stamp recipients are African Americans. The largest group receiving food stamps? Whites, at 36 percent. (About 10 percent are Hispanic.)
Because there is no requirement that recipients filling out application forms for food stamp assistance identify their race, almost 19 percent are classified as “race unknown.” Based on food stamp data obtained by the U.S. Census Bureau, the USDA greatly underestimates the number of whites receiving food stamps. The Census estimates that 49 percent of recipients are white, 26 percent are black, and 23 percent are Hispanic. (see http://www.factcheck.org/2012/01/newts-faulty-food-stamp-claim/)
In short, George W. Bush is the “food stamp president.” The “welfare queen” is more than likely a single white women in a Southern state like Newt Gingrich’s Georgia. And Gingrich is a shameless racial demagogue, trading in hateful and deceptive stereotypes to win votes from the most uninformed of bigots.
Newt Gingrich: Racial demagogue and bald-faced lair. (Photo from Google Images.)
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.