Two weeks ago at the Fox News/Wall Street Journal debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., I asked each GOP presidential candidate some pointed questions about the racial politics that will play a big role in the presidential campaign.
The language of GOP racial politics is heavy on euphemisms that allow the speaker to deny any responsibility for the racial content of his message. The code words in this game are “entitlement society”—as used by Mitt Romney—and “poor work ethic” and “food stamp president”—as used by Newt Gingrich. References to a lack of respect for the “Founding Fathers” and the “Constitution” also make certain ears perk up by demonizing anyone supposedly threatening core “old-fashioned American values.”
The code also extends to attacks on legal immigrants, always carefully lumped in with illegal immigrants, as people seeking “amnesty” and taking jobs from Americans.
Last week a passionate Republican told GOP candidate Rick Santorum: “I never refer to Obama as President Obama because legally he is not [president]. He constantly says that our Constitution is passé and he ignores it. … He is an avowed Muslim and my question is, why isn’t something being done to get him out of government? He has no legal right to be calling himself president.”
Santorum did not blink. The man who recently said he meant “blah people”—when the world heard him say “black people”—as he spoke about parasitic Americans who get better lives by taking “somebody else’s money,” did not correct the assault on the truth. Instead he agreed that Obama is attacking the Constitution and said: “Well, look, I’m trying my best to get him out of office.”
But the question that caused the most controversy was the one I posed to Gingrich.
The former Speaker has declared that black people should demand jobs instead of food stamps. And he has proposed having poor students work as janitors in their high schools. Regardless of how they were intended, poor people and minorities sense that with those comments Gingrich is winking—some call it “dog whistling”—at certain white audiences by intimating that black people are lazy, happy to live off the government and lacking any intellect.
Gingrich did not answer my question but rather threw red meat to Republicans in South Carolina, a state with a long history of racial politics.
He used the same rhetorical technique of the segregationist politicians of the past: rejecting the premise of the question, attacking the media and playing to the American people’s resentment of liberal elites, minorities and poor people.
The problem is not a lack of work ethic on the part of the poor, who are disproportionately minorities. The problem is there are few good jobs for blue-collar people with the best work ethic.
Let’s have an honest debate about why this is the case and what we can do to fix it.
But I regret that our political discourse has become so fragmented and combative that the point I was trying to make was obscured by pro-wrestling theatrics and post-debate spin.
Poverty, unemployment and the hopelessness that pervade minority communities are real issues that the GOP nominee, and President Obama for that matter, should address in this campaign.