If you want to understand why the GOP is so ill prepared to compete in an increasingly nonwhite America, just look at the exchange between Fox News questioner Juan Williams and Newt Gingrich halfway through last night’s Republican presidential debate.
It being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Williams asked Gingrich whether some poor and minority voters might not be insulted at his claim that poor kids lack a work ethic and that black people should be instructed to demand jobs, not food stamps. Gingrich, as is his wont, haughtily dismissed Williams’s question, to wild applause.
Then Williams tried again, mentioning a black woman who had taken Gingrich to task for calling Barack Obama a “food stamp” president. By this point, the overwhelmingly white crowd had begun to boo the only African-American on stage. When Gingrich insisted that Obama was indeed the “food stamp” president—because more Americans are now on food stamps—and dismissed Williams’s criticism as “politically correct,” the crowd began to scream with delight. By the time Gingrich finished his answer, the crowd was on its feet in a standing ovation.
The fascinating thing about the exchange is that Gingrich is not a racist. I suspect he genuinely cares about the African-American poor. In fact, he’s convinced himself that his willingness to say things that many African-Americans consider insulting is an expression of that concern; that only he cares enough about African-Americans to speak the “politically incorrect” truths that black leaders won’t.
Gingrich’s problem isn’t racism; it’s ignorance. Only someone profoundly ignorant of African-American politics would suggest that black Americans have spent the past few decades seeking food stamps, not jobs. We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, after all, in part because of the speech King gave at an event called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. If you look at the budgets proposed by the Congressional Black Caucus over the years, you’ll see that they often include huge, FDR-style government jobs programs. Gingrich may not think that’s the best way to go about providing jobs, but to suggest that African-Americans and their leaders don’t consider jobs important just reveals how shut off from Africa-American politics he actually is.
I’m sure Gingrich also sees nothing offensive in calling Obama the “food stamp” president. After all, under Obama the number of people using food stamps has gone up! So because Alan Greenspan presided over predatory lending policies by banks, perhaps we should have called him the “Shylock” chairman of the Federal Reserve. And if child molestations by priests rise on this administration’s watch, perhaps we should call Joseph Biden the “pedophilia” vice president.
Gingrich would never use those phrases, of course, because he’s familiar enough with Jews and Catholics to understand why they’d find them offensive. But for Gingrich—a veteran politician from the state of Georgia, speaking at a debate in South Carolina on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday—not to understand why calling the first African-American in the Oval Office the “food stamp” president would offend African-Americans is simply amazing. The most plausible explanation is that Gingrich inhabits a cultural and intellectual bubble. A bubble called the Republican Party.
I don’t doubt that Newt Gingrich wants to help African-Americans, just like I don’t doubt that George W. Bush wanted to help Iraqis. But in politics, if you want to help people, it’s a good idea to learn something about them first.