Throughout the endless series of presidential debates, there haven’t been many questions about black folks.
Juan Williams single-handedly changed that on Monday night.
As the only liberal Fox News commentator to serve on a debate panel, not to mention the channel’s most recognizable African-American, Williams did not shy away from the opportunity to put the GOP candidates on the spot.
Any real discussion of minorities has “been totally absent from the Republican debates,” Williams told me. “It being Martin Luther King Day and in South Carolina, I thought it was the right time to broach the questions…I was aware and my bosses were aware that the questions I was asking might not be popular in that crowd and in that space, a conservative crowd in South Carolina.”
My initial reaction was that Williams was, forgive me, ghettoizing himself. Should a journalist act as a spokesman for a certain point of view? Did he risk looking like he was pursuing his own agenda?
But on reflection, if Juan didn’t interject those subjects into the campaign, who knows if they would ever come up? The media, like the candidates, seem entirely focused on the middle class and the wealthy. Poor people are passé.
“You’re talking about running for president of the United States in a 21st-century country in which more than a third are people of color, that has extremely high rates of immigration, and has an African-American president,” Williams says. “This is not some form of tokenism. These are central issues for these times.”
So let’s go to the videotape.
Williams asked Mitt Romney about his hard line on illegal immigration: “Are you alienating Latino voters that Republicans will need to win the general election?”
He told Rick Santorum that “the Obama administration has not specifically addressed high levels of joblessness and a 25 percent poverty rate in black America…Do you feel the time has come to take special steps to deal with the extraordinary level of poverty afflicting one race of America?”
Williams asked Ron Paul about a study which “finds that blacks who are jailed at four times the rate of whites in South Carolina are most often convicted on drug offenses. Do you see racial disparities in drug-related arrests and convictions as a problem?”
And then there was the showdown with Newt.
“Speaker Gingrich,” Williams began, “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, of course, didn’t see it that way at all. He said his daughter Jackie had worked as a church janitor when she was 13 and
Williams pushed back hard, almost as if he was a rival candidate. He said his e-mail and Twitter accounts have “been inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities.”
The crowd started booing lustily.
Williams kept going, noting that a woman in a black church had asked Gingrich why he refers to Obama as “the food stamp president.”
The booing got louder.
Newt ignored the racial aspect of the question, saying “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. Now, I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”
Of course, Obama hasn’t “put” anyone on food stamps; people (more of them white) have flocked to the program because of the ailing economy. But in the parlance of politics, Gingrich had won the moment.
“He was flinging red-meat answers intending to fire up the crowd,” Williams told me. “He had stacked the crowd with his supporters. I don’t think he answered the question. He used it as an effective platform to appeal to a conservative audience.”
Newt’s focus on an alleged lack of “work ethic,” says Williams, ignores the high jobless rate among young people, “especially for poor and minority young people.”
Williams is smart to brush off the booing. While he risks coming off as an advocate, he asked some revealing questions at the South Carolina debate—and, in the wake of his firing by National Public Radio, further raised his profile at Fox.
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