This year Republicans chose a particularly galling way to mark Martin Luther King Day. They gathered for a GOP presidential debate at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in a state that was the birthplace of the Confederacy, and hooted and hollered as one of their candidates ridiculed black people’s commitment to hard work and condescended towards the only African American reporter on the panel.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich hit a low in racial demagoguery in 2011 when he began calling Barack Obama a "food stamp president" but he later out-Gingriched himself. That moment, I believe, came during the January 12 debate, when Gingrich staged his ugly confrontation with Juan Williams, one of the few number of African American voices heard on that network of white racial resentment, Fox News.
Context matters. South Carolina was the first state to secede in defense of slavery at the start of the Civil War and subsequently the land of lynching, Jim Crow and white supremacist politicians like late Sen. Strom Thurmond. When George W. Bush faced a tougher-than expected challenge from Sen. John McCain, Bush political guru Karl Rove knew the future president could stage a comeback if the campaign appealed to ugly South Carolina racism. The Bush campaign surreptitiously made so-called “push calls” and distributed literature that implied that McCain had engaged in interracial sex and had a black daughter. Such tactics would fail in the civilized world but was persuasive in the moonlight and magnolia state.
As elsewhere, South Carolina Republicans are almost completely segregated. Newt Gingrich and his competitors debated before a audience whiter than a Justin Beiber concert. Juan Williams, who once wrote a fine history of the civil rights movement called Eyes on the Prize, confronted Gingrich over his "food stamp president" remarks. Williams merely implied the phrase was racially insensitive towards a black president and his African American constituents. The question was reasonable, and therefore offensive to Gingrich and his Tea Party/Fox News audience. Here is Williams question, and Gingrich's curt reply:
Williams: Speaker Gingrich, you recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also say poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed as at a minimum as insulting to all Americans but particularly to black Americans?
Gingrich: No, I don’t see that.
(Tumultuous applause for Gingrich mixed with scattered boos for Williams follows).
The lynch mob in the audience then got lathered up when Gingrich blabbered about what a great thing it would be to have poor children provide janitorial services at small wages for their better-off peers. The former House Speaker then put on his “man of the people” mask and sneered that poor kids are poor because they don’t have a work ethic. Forcing these brats to hold a job as 12 and 13-year-olds would supposedly teach them the value of a dollar. Gingrich said:
“They’d learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. They could work in the cafeteria. They could work in the front office. They could work in the library. They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.”
The man who gave this lecture on honest work here is Newt Gingrich, that bloated plutocrat who earned $6.7 million as a lobbyist for Freddie Mac and who has a $500,000 revolving account at the Tiffany’s jewelry story for his former mistress and future ex-wife Callista. This multi-millionaire Washington insider is scoffing at other people as clueless “elites.”
Gingrich believes poor people need to learn the value of a job. You know, those lazy good-for-nothings who do the really easy jobs like swabbing rich people’s palaces, scrubbing toilets, cooking short-order meals and busing and cleaning tables at restaurants, endlessly shelving stock at Walmart, planting and maintaining gardens owned by the privileged, paving roads and roofing in the boiling sun, picking crops for 12 hours a day in fields where they get sprayed with insecticide, or getting carpal tunnel syndrome from repeatedly wiping the shit off of dying patients’ asses in hospitals. Obviously these folks need to be taught about breaking a sweat from this pampered pundit. Yep, lobbying and droning as a talking head on Fox News is really back-breaking labor, ain’t it Newt?
There is, of course, an ugly appeal to racism in Gingrich specifically calling a black man a “food stamp president.” Most welfare recipients and food stamp recipients are white, they usually are children, and 41 percent work full time but earn too little to make ends ends meet. As noted in the previous blog post, Obama can’t be blamed for the fact that more people became poor – and therefore needed public assistance – during an historically deep and particularly cruel recession that began in 2007 when George Bush was president.
As columnist Peter Beinart pointed out in The Daily Beast, if we can justify calling Obama a “food stamp” president because of a downturn that started well before he assumed office, then “because Alan Greenspan presided over predatory lending policies by banks, perhaps we should have called him the ‘Shylock’ chairman of the Federal Reserve. And if child molestations by priests rise on this administration’s watch, perhaps we should call Joseph Biden the ‘pedophilia’ vice president.” Logicians call this flaw in reasoning the post hoc ergo proctor hoc error.
Juan Williams kept pressing and called Gingrich on his clear implication that black people are slothful.
WILLIAMS: The suggestion that [you] made was about a lack of work ethic. And I’ve got to tell you, my e-mail account, my Twitter account has been inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities. You saw some of this reaction during your visit… (Audience boos loudly.) … to a black church in South Carolina. You saw some of this during your visit to a black church in South Carolina, where a woman asked you why you refer to President Obama as “the food stamp president.” It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people. (more booing.)”
This belittling is particularly unforgivable because Gingrich received a Ph.D. in history from a quality school, Tulane University. Newt belittles the black work ethic even though he comes from a former slave state, Georgia, where for more than two centuries African Americans worked from before sunup to after sundown for no wages in order to make a small number of highly conservative white elites very rich. After slavery, Georgia depended on black sharecroppers to cultivate and pick cotton, which for most of the state’s awful history was the state’s primary export. For hundreds of years Georgia’s economy rested on the backs of black labor.
With the sorry rednecks in the Myrtle Beach audience clearly behind him, Gingrich doubled down on the red-hot white supremacist rhetoric. “Well, first of all, Juan,” Gingrich said, spitting his words out like he had just tasted rotten meat, “the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.” First of all, Newt, as noted in the previous post, this is a flat-out falsehood. More people went on food stamps under your guy, the conveniently white George W. Bush. What if particularly noteworthy is the sinister way Gingrich sneered Williams’ name – Juan – to emphasize it’s Latino sound. You can hear members of the audience laughing when Gingrich says, “Juan,” an overly familiar and belittling way of referring to the reporter in lieu of calling him “Mr. Williams.”
Calling a black man by first name, denying them titles of respect, of course, was the tradition among white Southerners in addressing their slaves and then their ostensibly free field hands after Emancipation. Gingrich not only spoke like an angry plantation master, but he wanted to single out this solitary black man as being possibly foreign. Gingrich did this in front of an audience that, stupidly and stubbornly in spite of all objective evidence, persists in the belief that Obama himself was born in Kenya and therefore has no legitimate right to be president. The contempt and the drawing out of the name “Juan” inspired another round of wild cheers from the dopey, hateful crowd.
What can we say? President Lincoln’s biggest mistake was not letting South Carolina secede. Gingrich would use this ugly, patronizing performance in campaign ads and the Jim Crow Republican Party of South Carolina, with all their vaunted Christian family values, rewarded a corrupt, serial adulterer who had been a campaign footnote, with a badly needed primary victory. It was an important moment of values clarification for white South Carolinians who decided that they still hate black people more than they despise Catholics.
As New York Times blogger Charles M. Blow suggests, “Gingrich seems to understand the historical weight of the view among some southern whites, many of whom have migrated to the Republican party, that blacks are lazy and addicted to handouts. He is able to give voice to those feelings without using those words. He is able to make people believe that a fundamentally flawed and prejudicial argument that demeans minorities is actually for their uplift. It is Gingrich’s gift: He is able to make ill will sound like good will.”
For more information, see:
Serial adulterer Newt Gingrich puts an "uppity" black reporter "in his place" and wins votes from racist voters in South Carolina.
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.