I got my first job when I was 12. The deacons at my church paid me $2 a week to keep it swept and mopped.
So I do not need Newt Gingrich to lecture me about a good work ethic. In this, I suspect I speak for the vast majority of 39 million African Americans.
There has been a lot of talk about whether Gingrich’s recent language, including his performance at last week’s South Carolina debate and his earlier declaration that Barack Obama has been America’s best “food-stamp president,” amounts to a coded appeal to racist sensitivities. The answer is simple: yes.
In this, Gingrich joins a line of Republicans stretching back at least to Richard Nixon. From that president’s trumpeting of “law and order” (i.e., “I will get these black demonstrators off the streets.”) to Ronald Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens” (i.e., “I will stop these lazy black women from living high on your tax dollars.”) to George H.W. Bush’s use of Willie Horton (i.e., “Elect me or this scary black man will get you..”) the GOP long ago mastered the craft of using nonracial language to say racial things.
So Gingrich is working from a well-thumbed playbook when he hectors blacks about their work ethic and says they should demand paychecks and not be “satisfied” with food stamps” — as if most blacks had ever done anything else. As if an unemployment rate that for some mysterious reason runs twice the national average does not make paychecks hard to come by. As if blacks were the only, or even the majority of, food stamp recipients.
When challenged on this by debate moderator Juan Williams, Gingrich went after it like Babe Ruth after a hanging curve ball, delivering a strident defense of the need to teach poor kids the value of a paycheck. “Only the elites,” he lectured, “despise earning money.” It won him a standing ovation.
Let’s be clear. To the degree Gingrich’s argument is that stubborn, intergenerational poverty is often fed by habits and ways of life inimical to the building of wealth, he is exactly right. But those habits and ways afflict the white hollows of Appalachia as much as the black heart of urban America, and when Gingrich defines poverty solely as blackness, he is not critiquing poverty, but race.
The South Carolina audience sure got the message. That state is one of the poorest in the Union: fifth lowest median income, poverty rate of 18.2 percent. So if the point is just that the poor must get up off their backsides, why would they applaud? They are the poor.
They applaud because they understand he is not talking about them. He is saying, “Elect me and I will get these black people’s hands out of your pocket.” For as much as Republicans decry the so-called politics of envy, they still seem right at home practicing the politics of racial resentment — and mass distraction.
In so doing, they tap a rich vein of stereotype and preconception about the supposed laziness of African-American people.
One of my students shared this parable: A rich white man sits with a poor white man and poor black man at a table laden with cookies. The rich white man snatches all the cookies but one, then turns to the poor white man and says, “Watch out for that darky. I think he wants to take your cookie.”
It works every time.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Readers may write to him via e-mail at [email protected] He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.