Sunday, January 22, 2012

Race, Gingrich, and South Carolina

I love living in the south--the mild winters, the summer heat, magnolia trees with those impossibly large white blooms nestled among glossy green leaves. I like iced tea, collard greens, and watermelon. I can make a sweet potato pie that will make you forget that there is such a thing as a pumpkin. I'm southern to the core and while I love my southern heritage, I also know that it includes a dark side, a little problem that has to do with race.

Please don't misunderstand, I know that race is not an issue only in the South. I've seen enough manifestations of racial prejudice in my lifetime to be certain that it is not limited by geography. The South just has a peculiar love/hate affair with its perceptions about race. The white guy with a confederate flag on his bumper and who would disown any child of his that dated outside of his race will stop to help a lone black woman standing by the road next to her broken down car.

This dichotomy of feelings about race is what fuels someone like Newt Gingrich, what allows him to make a statement such as the following with a sincere belief that it does not reflect racial stereotyping and should not be construed as offensive or racist.
I'm prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I'll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps. (Gingrich Singles Out Blacks)
Gingrich conveniently ignores that  28% of American households receiving food stamps are black and 59% are white. About 78% of American households are white and about 13% are black. (U.S. Census Bureau)

NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous points out, the majority of people receiving food stamps are not African-Americans and have jobs. (Gingrich Singles Out Blacks) Gingrich is fond of referring to Obama as the food stamp president. (Id.) More people are receiving food stamps under this administration. Of course more people are unemployed or under employed. The country is, after all, in a recession.

However, in spite of all my discussion of Newt and food stamps, my point isn't really about Gingrich's dissemination of misleading and down right false information. I'm more interested in Newt's win in South Carolina. 

This ability to hold on to racist ideology and simultaneously and sincerely believe that you are not acting in a racist manner is at the core of South Carolina's enthusiasm for Newt Gingrich. Gingrich responded with indignation when moderator Juan Williams dared inquire at the GOP presidential candidates debate in South Carolina:
Speaker Gingrich, you recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also said 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, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?
Gingrich's response was swift and direct, "No. I don't see that." The audience in the debate hall also responded, standing and applauding Gingrich's snippy response.

Huffington Post reporter Jon Ward sums it up succinctly: 
From the moment that Gingrich slapped down Williams' questions about his attitude toward low-income blacks and thousands in the debate hall stood and roared their approval--several voters this week told The Huffington Post that Gingrich "put him in his place"--Gingrich was on fire. (Gingrich Wins Big in SC)
Newt Gingrich speaks southern, and he is particularly fluent in the dialect of white southerners. It sounds the same as regular southern on the surface but it includes all sorts of code words and phrases. Neighborhood schools is a euphemism for maintaining segregation. Putting paychecks in the hands of black people is code for, those people don't want to work and live to receive government handouts. Put him in his place is used to speak of putting down an uppity Negro who has forgotten his place. Juan Williams at the debate and President Obama in general, as he is the most uppity Negro of all time. Angry black woman refers to any black female who articulates her opinions and doesn't shy away from controversy. Example: First Lady Michelle Obama. (I'm proud to say that I have also been designated on more than one occasion as an angry black woman.)

Newt knows how to make southern whites who refuse to confront their own issues with race feel good about themselves. A discussion about race and racism is immediately ended when the focus becomes on declaring that one is not a racist, although no one has declared anyone to be a racist. Talking about racism is not the same as calling someone a racist. The discussion that needs to be done about lingering racist beliefs, attitudes,and practices rarely takes place in this country which is why Newt really doesn't get why there is anything wrong with declaring that black people need to seek paychecks instead of food stamps. The key word is seek,which assumes that black people are more likely to be low-wealth in America because we choose to be so.

Gingrich believes that he has the vision to lead low-wealth black folks to the promised land. All he has to do is show us the light so that we understand that we need to work and not just sit around waiting for government handouts. Newt, and his eager supporters in South Carolina function on the presumption that it is lack of effort and inherent laziness on the part of black people that makes for a disproportional number of African-Americans living at or below the poverty level in the U.S.  Lack of opportunities, systemic and institutional racial exclusion, and a continued fostering of racial stereotypes have nothing to do with it. 

The reality is that the concept of racial equality is relatively new. Following emancipation in 1865 was a hundred years of Jim Crow, discrimination,restriction, and persecution based on the color of your skin. I grew up in a society in which where I could go and what I could do was determined by my skin color. I had to learn as a child not to display anything that could be construed as attitude or impudence to any white person regardless as to what that white person may have done or said to me.  I was denied access to schools, restaurants, hospitals, swimming pools, wherever there was a sign that designated "white only." Although there are days when I feel ancient, I'm only 56.

It remains to be seen if Newt Gingrich's bilingual abilities will make him the GOP presidential nominee. His substantial victory in South Carolina, 40.4% to Romney's 27.9%, may not translate well to other parts of the nation which are not as adept at self deception when it comes to matters of race. 

There are those who insist that the intense anti-Obama sentiment expressed by some has nothing to do with his being a black man. He is, by every definition that this country proposes about determining one's race a black man.  So when someone says to me, what's race got to do with it, my answer is "everything."


Sybil said...

Looking over from this side of the Atlantic your last sentence said it all.. "what's race got to do with it, everything"
I only hope that President Obama's words can be heard above it all.But I rather fear that they won't, the knives are out..
Love Sybil xx

Vagabonde said...

Your observations are accurate. I am very sad to say that in this country, unfortunately, race has a lot to do with it. I might add that being a foreigner in Georgia, with an accent, is not too good either, and a French accent is one of the worst – I have had many problems with it. I have very few Georgian friends even though I have lived here since 1976! I also live in Newt Gingrich‘s county. I thought that by now people here would have understood what type of person he is. But as you mention, they understand what type of person he is – he is just like most of them. My husband had to take a course at Kennesaw State one year for his work. The course was taught by Gingrich. After one day, my husband told his office he just could not go back because so much of what Gingrich was teaching was not based on historical facts – just his ideas of history.

This is one of the reasons I travel so much – the atmosphere is suffocating in Cobb County and I need to get away to feel free.

Anonymous said...

Apologies some typos:

Regarding "Gingrich conveniently ignores that 28% of American households receiving food stamps are black and 59% are white. About 78% of American households are white and about 13% are black. (U.S. Census Bureau)"

Unfortunately, I think this is another example of the (I know I sound dramatic and self-righteous, please bear with me) hypocrisy 95%+ Americans have regarding racism. i.e. Racism has become so ill defined, effectively any mention of the current inequality of races is interpreted as erroneous and immoral.

To cut to the chase, the evidence you've provided doesn't negate Gingrich's statement, although it does hurt his case significantly. To be crystal clear: A. Blacks make up 1/10th of the population. A small minority. B. The proportion of people who recieve foodstamps that are black is ~3/10ths. Mathematically speaking, blacks are 3x as likely to request food stamps as they would be if all races were equal in their poverty/character/et cetera et cetera. C. White people make up 80% of all people in the US, and only make up 60% of the people asking for food stamps. 60/80 and 30/10 equate to 75% and 300% (roughly speaking). So, Whites have 25% less food stamp claimants than they would if all races were equal in the US, whereas Blacks have ~200% more.

Now, this definitely does not mean that this is something inherent in the genetics (etc), so feel free to take me out of whatever racist pigeon hole you may or may not have proverbially stuck me in, but what this does mean is that the current generation of Black Americans are disproportionally, and in a way that is statistically significant, is claiming food stamps. Does this mean that all Black Americans claim food stamps? No. Does that mean that all Black Americans are a part of the same social and economic group as those claiming food stamps, and are only enjoying a temporary respite from their racially-determined inevitability? No. Is Gingrich correct in implying that 90% of Black Americans are lacking in good work ethic? That is a highly unlikely proposition. However, does this also mean that all races are equal? No, it does not. People are neither born equal (due to genes, and parent social and economic background), and nor are they free of their circumstantial stimuli which affect their development to a very significant extent. Because the US has had a history of racist segregation, these enforced opinions became more closely resembling of reality. i.e. If a powerful racial majority took an even more educated/wealthy/hardworking/etc racial minority, and subjected this minority to two hundred years of slavery and segregation in lower class neighborhoods and jobs, well, guess what; in two hundred years, these people will likely be very much a product of their own environment. So let us not pretend that Gingrich doesn't have a point, as callously as it may have been phrased.

Shaw Kenawe said...

What's race got to do with it?

Since Mr. Obama became president I get, on average, one comment over at my blog that links to a racist photo or cartoon about him. The lastest, the other day, which was promptly deleted, showed Michelle Obama in the WH pantry. What do you supposed stocked the shelves?

I also have a relative who's married to a woman whose relatives come from the south. They send my relative's wife emails showing the president and his family in the most repugnant racial stereotypes.

So yes, race does have everything to do with it.

Re: Gingrich: Put him and his Wife 3.0 beside the POTUS and the FLOTUS on a stage, and the visuals alone will give the elegant and dignified Mr. Obama and his genuinely beautiful wife an automatic advantage.

It would be like putting a sleek and polished race car next to a gas-guzzling clunker. LOL!

Nance said...

I admire how measured and reasoned your voice is here; far more effective than my crazed rants on Newt. He inspires real hatred in me and I know that brings me down to his level. I foam at the mouth, I want to hide in shame for sharing a state with those debate audiences. My highest hope is that the GOP candidates all hang on and battle each other to an impotent draw right down to the GOP convention.

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

We can only hope Newt is the nominee, because he will get slammed by President Obama.

Sheria said...

Anonymous, I generally don't publish unsigned comments; however, I published your anonymous comment because it actually illustrates much of what I discussed in my post.

You miss the point entirely. I was not attempting to negate Gingrich's statement. His data is accurate. I am also well aware that blacks receive food stamps in a disproportionate number to our representation in the population. That is why I included data as to the percentage of the population is white and that which is black.

Newt's point wasn't to point out the disproportionate number of blacks on food stamps. His observation was that black people choose food stamps rather than seek jobs. That's a racist point of view. What fascinates me is the ability of white people to make what are inherently racist conclusions and deceive themselves into believing that they are merely being helpful.

People qualify for food stamps because they have insufficient income to buy food. Let's look at blacks and whites as individuals and not as percentages, and we have twice as many white people receiving food stamps as black people receiving food stamps.

Given that black people have been denied full participation in the economic system of the U.S., I am impressed that there aren't more of us receiving food stamps.

By the way, it isn't slavery that is the issue in the economic discrepancies based on race. If the end of legalized slavery in 1865 had truly ended all discrimination based on race, then it is possible that today's issues of race and racism would not exist. It was the post-civil war era which produced Jim Crow laws, legalized discrimination that impeded the ability of African-Americans to become educated, to be competitive in the work force, to vote, to own property etc. that ensured our remaining second class citizens. The 1954 & 1955 Brown decisions were the start on the path to equality, and the 1967 Civil Rights Act enshrined in law anti-discrimination provisions meant to level the playing field. However, implementation of the law took some time which is why black Americans in my age group attended segregated schools and grew up in a society of "No Colored Allowed" signs.

You are wrong. All people are equal. Race is a social construct with no basis in science. The Human Genome Project made that definitively clear. The stratification in society, the unequal distribution of opportunities results in the uneven distribution of wealth and power. Racist beliefs and behaviors result in discrimination and discrimination stifles the growth and development of a people on many levels.

Gingrich said nothing worthwhile and with his words he appealed to the baser instincts of his followers who salve their own consciences by reassuring themselves that the plight of the poor is due to their inherent laziness and that the face of poverty is black. Which begs the question of why nearly 60% of the folks who receive food stamps are white? Perhaps poverty is colorblind.

Lisa :-] said...

It amazes me that anybody is getting mileage from calling President Obama "The Food Stamp President." The Previous Occupant presided over the toppling of the economy which put millions out of work. I suppose the Obama administration should just let these folks starve? I can see the headlines now: "Obama Turns His Back On Hungry Americans." If you're damned if you do and damned if you don't, might as walk on the higher ground. The President has found himself in this position time after time in the past three years. I'm surprised he has the strength to get out of bed in the morning...but he fights on, winning small battles that no one seems to notice.

I, for one, am rooting for Gingrich to become the Republican candidate. I'm pretty sure he has less appeal to "swing" voters than Romney... And he has a lot more skeletons in his closet for the Obama campaign to exploit, I'm thinkin'...

Murr Brewster said...

@Lisa: calling Obama the Food Stamp President has nothing to do with why it is necessary to have a food stamp program, now more than ever, because of the economy wreck he inherited. It is nothing but an effective shorthand to signal to a certain population that he is Not One Of Us, to remind people that he is black, and thus worthy of scorn.

Beth said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Sheria, including the "code words." I'm just a hick white chick from Indiana and even I get it!

You know what's weird? I honestly don't think Newt is a racist. He truly doesn't think there was anything wrong with what he said, and he can't comprehend that anyone would think it was wrong. He thought he was doing a super cool thing to offer to go over to the NAACP and talk to them about it.

Many of President Obama's most vociferous critics also don't think it has anything to do with his race, despite their opposition to policies that Republicans have proposed in the past. They somehow seem to know that he's "different" than them, but they attribute it to the fact (haha) that he's a socialist, or an "elite," or a Muslim. They absolutely will never understand that it's really because they don't think that a black man belongs in the White House. They will forever deny that that is the true reason they don't like him.

I find it pretty sad on many levels, including that of self-awareness and growth. The title of your blog is pertinent in this regard. How can we ever grow as a person if we don't stop to examine our motivations, or why something bothers us on such a deep level? I think about things like that all the time, and when I finally figure it out, I experience a feeling of relief. As in, "So THAT'S where that is coming from!"

Of course, that assumes that people actually want to grow as a person. Just as many will scoff at getting a college education, there are plenty who will say, "I'm fine just the way I am. I don't need to change."

Nina Ø said...

Hey. You are so articulate. Loved this post. I'm white and 66 yrs in California. Don't feel comfortable visiting my cousin in NC. I missed "The Food Stamp President" statement. LOL Did you know it is a Dept of Ag program to help farmers? (I was a SW when it started.) You go girl!