Newt Gingrich’s attacks on “the establishment” and “elites” obscure a deeper truth: the popularity of his racist appeals. Gingrich’s resurgence began when he attacked Barack Obama as the “food stamp president” and went into high gear when he forcefully rebutted charges of racial insensitivity. He got extra points for the latter, as it enabled him to “stand up” to Juan Williams, an African-American reporter. Racism has always played well in the South, and the traditional media has facilitated it. The media looked the other way when Ronald Reagan chose Philadelphia, Mississippi for his post-convention 1980 campaign kickoff, a city primarily associated with the murder of three civil rights activists in the 1960’s. Gingrich’s attacks on the “liberal elite” or the “elite media” are almost identical to the racial coding used by former Alabama Governor George Wallace in his presidential runs. Racist appeals against African-Americans and Latinos now dominate Republican politics from Arizona
and points in between, with the 1% that controls the corporate media content to look the other way.
It is 2012, nearly fifty years after the passage of the key federal civil rights laws, and it is clear from the Republican primaries and events sweeping the nation that millions of Americans would love to turn the clock back to earlier days.
Newt Gingrich knows that he can be attacked for his divorces, ethics violations, and contract with Freddie Mac, but that he can use racist appeals without fear of losing votes.
His success in South Carolina, which proudly waves the Confederate flag, came without a single opponent accusing him of using anti-black rhetoric to win votes.
The media, unsurprisingly, will not touch such racism with a ten-foot pole. Among the endless interviews of voters primary to the South Carolina primary, I heard nobody asked if Gingrich’s appeal to racism was impacting their decision.
To imply that anyone has racist attitudes is politically off-limits in a nation built on slave labor, that denied blacks constitutional protections for hundreds of years, and in recent weeks has allowed Tucson, Arizona to remove all books
from its shelves written by those of Latino ancestry.
Gingrich’s bashing of the “liberal media elite” plays great with Republican voters, but the target of such attacks continues to downplay this electorate’s racial motivations. For example, while the New York Times’
Charles Blow can publish a January 17 column
, “Newt Gingrich and the Art of Racial Politics,” his insights on racial coding were rarely mentioned in the paper’s news reports or analysis.
A media that relentlessly analyzes voter motivations limits discussion of racism to the opinion section. And when it is an African-American journalist like Blow raising racism, many white readers will conclude that he is just another minority unfairly complaining about discrimination.
Since the Republican debate where Gingrich demonstrated racist appeals occurred on Martin Luther King Day, you would think the news media – at least on this one occasion – would be willing to address race. But that would subject them to charges of liberal bias. Instead, little has been made of the debate audience’s reaction to Williams (who works for FOX News) asking Gingrich to respond to “people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities. We saw some of this reaction during your visit to a black church in South Carolina.”
After hearing about blacks complaining about racial insensitivity, the crowd booed. And when Williams elaborated on his points, the crowd booed even louder.
Although 28% of South Carolina voters are black, 99% of Republican primary voters last Saturday were white.
For James Clyburn, the prominent African-American Congressmember from South Carolina, Gingrich’s use of racist appeals
to win votes was clear: “He went after the media down in Myrtle Beach. He ‘put Juan Williams in his place.’ These little words and phrases that he used – calling President Obama a ‘food stamp president’ – these are things that were reminiscent of the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon and the ‘welfare queen’ created by Ronald Reagan. He understands all of that. He played into it very well and did a masterful job of connecting with the Republican voter.”
Undermining America’s Narrative
The media substitutes voters’ anti-government, anti-elitist, states rights attitudes for their more powerful racial motivations because the latter undermines the core narrative of the United States as a colorblind, equal opportunity society. We don’t want the world to think that the United States elects presidents based on their racial attitudes; that certainly would not help our corporations seeking markets and operating factories abroad.
So the media interview people who say they are voting for Gingrich because he “shares my values” without asking whether these values includes racism against African-Americans. And after the shellacking Juan Williams got for broaching the subject, it will likely remain off-limits for the remainder of the primary season.
It’s not just African-Americans who politicians can demean in today’s United States on the basis of race.
There has been much attention about anti-Latino laws passed in Arizona, Alabama and other states (whose racial profiling is covered by their allegedly targeting undocumented immigrants), but where is the nationwide furor over the requirement that Tucson, Arizona schools remove books by Native-American and Latino authors?
Tucson removed the books after Arizona passed a state law that bars schools from offering books designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or that advocates “ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” Imagine if Arizona had eliminated books by Jewish authors as part of purge of Near Eastern Studies on the grounds that, like Mexican-American studies, they treated Jews as a “particular ethnic group” rather than as individuals.
Think Arizona would have gotten away with banning books about that group of people with a history of being treated collectively rather than as individuals? Would anyone be disputing that this singling out of Jewish culture was both racist and anti-Semitic?
The Arizona law also appears to require the removal of books about U.S. slavery, as this too involved treating people as a group rather than as individuals. But with African-Americans comprising only 4% of Arizonans, they apparently do not pose a threat to the state’s demand for an ethnically cleansed history.
In a recent town hall where a questioner asked Gingrich how he would “bloody Obama’s nose,” the former Speaker replied
, “I don’t want to bloody his nose, I want to knock him out!” His campaign then sent out a fundraising appeal via email whose subject line read “A Bloody Nose Just Won’t Cut It.”
In light of Florida’s particularly violent history
against blacks, such words should resonate with Republican voters in the upcoming primary.
Randy Shaw is author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.