In an from Take this Hammer (1963), James Baldwin speaks pointedly and thoughtfully about “Who is the Nigger?”
In this explication of the racial slur now rendered taboo, Baldwin explains that “What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you.” His examination asks his listeners to turn the racism and demonizing of people positioned as “Others” back on those using language as both a sword and a mask.
Currently, in 2013, racial slurs as taboo words have resulted in an ironic silencing of discussions of race as well. Polite company—that middle-class norm of civility—will not allow racial slurs, but that censoring of a word also becomes a more insidious form of oppression, a verbal shielding of the remaining racism that strangles the American democracy.
Nearly fifty years later, during the 2012 Republican primaries for president, Americans found themselves confronted by the most corrosive forms of racism in the candidacy of Newt Gingrich, but few strayed outside the confines of civility to name it for what it was.
“I’m Going to Continue to Help Poor People Learn How to Get a Job”
During Gingrich’s rise to winning the South Carolina presidential primary in January 2012, Gingrich built a steady platform about “poor people”—including the following:
• Repeating the refrain that Obama is the “food stamp president.”
• Calling for “poor children” to be given work in schools as janitors because:
“’Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits for working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday,’ Gingrich told more than 500 employees inside the Nationwide Insurance lunchroom, NBC News reported. ‘So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of “I do this and you give me cash,” unless it’s illegal.'”
• Assuming the pose of professor and job creator by announcing he was “…going to continue to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and someday learn how to own the job.”
Gingrich’s racism and his speaking to the racism of his constituency were in many ways more insidious than the racial slur confronted by Baldwin in 1963 because Gingrich’s ploy allowed him to mask his intent one or two layers beneath his words. “Food stamps,” “janitor,” “no habit” (laziness), and “illegal” trigger the racial stereotypes that drive racism—stereotypes that have no basis in fact, but remain robust in America’s social norms and uncritical acceptance of myths such as the culture of poverty.
As a fifty-plus-year-old white man living my entire life in the South, I am well acquainted with the pervasive direct racism as well as the wink-wink-nod-nod racism not just a legacy of the South but a daily reality remaining in 2013. As Gingrich mined and as Obama remained mostly silent on that racism, Americans and their leaders must confront the realities of the land of the free and the home of the brave:
• Males constitute about half the U.S. population, but represent by 10 to 1 the prison population; white men outnumber black men about 5 to 1, but black men fill U.S. prisons at a rate 6 to 1 compared to white men.
• According to 2005 research by Walter Gilliam, prekindergarten expulsion rates mirror U.S. prison dynamics: “Black boys receive less attention, harsher punishments, and lower grades in school than their White counterparts”:
“African-American preschoolers were about twice as likely to be expelled as European-American (both Latino and non-Latino) preschoolers and over five times as likely as Asian-American preschoolers. Boys were expelled at a rate over 4½ times that of girls. The increased likelihood of boys to be expelled over girls was similar across all ethnicities, except for African-Americans (?2 = 25.93, p < .01), where boys accounted for 91.4% of the expulsions.”
“The racial wealth gap has been enormous ever since the Census Bureau began measuring it 25 years ago. But it has never been larger than today. The median wealth of a white family is now at least 20 times higher than that of a black family and 18 times that of a Latino family, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.”
“Gingrich, meanwhile has been criticized not only for singling out Obama as the ‘food stamp president’ but for specifically linking the program to minorities. The NAACP and the National Urban League sharply criticized him for comments in early January that ‘the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps,’ accusing him of feeding stereotypes about the black poor. In fact, 22% of SNAP recipients are black, compared to 36% for whites, 10% for Latinos and 18% from unknown racial backgrounds.”
“Higher levels of economic inequality are associated with lower rates of mobility. But children are more upwardly mobile in some nations than in others. How do countries like Canada, with above-average inequality and above-average child poverty rates, do so well on mobility outcomes compared with the United States? Canada has more effective public investments in education, including nearly universal preschool, effective secondary schools and high rates of college completion. And the Canadians are much more generous to low- and middle-income families, including child allowances and tuition breaks for university education.”
• While “No Excuses” education reformers simultaneously decry public education a historical failure and the sole mechanism for social reform, children of color and children in poverty are routinely assigned to classrooms taught by the least experienced and un-/under-qualified teachers—including a rise in hiring Teach for America (TFA) recruits to staff high-poverty schools and in corporate charter schools that are re-segregating public education.
The reality of racism and inequity in America is being ignored, and politicians, such as Gingrich, bait racists and perpetuate racism, directly and indirectly.
A recent Room for Debate (The New York Times) includes George Lakoff identifying why and how politicians continue to misrepresent the state of America:
“But more often politicians lie to protect or advance what they see as a moral endeavor (e.g., the invasion of Iraq, Reagan’s war on nonexistent ‘welfare queens, Johnson on the Tonkin Gulf). In the conservative moral system, the highest value is protecting and extending the moral system itself. When conservative icons or ideas themselves are threatened, it is not uncommon for conservative politicians to lie in their defense (Reagan never raised taxes; there’s no evidence for global warming; ‘government takeover’).”
It is politically advantageous to claim that America is post-racial, that America has achieved equity, but as the evidence above shows, those claims are political lies.
We may say that Gingrich’s campaign strategy included race-baiting or class warfare, but that would be yet more masking and avoiding the harsh reality that Gingrich’s strategy was racism—and it often worked.
To paraphrase and extend Baldwin’s perceptive understanding of a racial slur, what Gingrich said about poor people was telling us about him, and by association, those who voted for him.
Racism remains a vivid and crippling scar on the American character in 2013, and America needs leadership and voices that will name that reality and call for a commitment to seeking the ideals of equity and post-racial America. But that will never occur if we hide behind the masks of middle class civility and political expediency that claim we have achieved the ideals we debase every day.
Recommended James Baldwin