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."