How to Listen for Racism on the Campaign Trail: Jeffrey Goldberg
Here are some things you could learn about black Americans from the recent statements and insinuations of Republican presidential candidates, Republican congressmen and Republican-friendly radio personalities:
Black people have lost the desire to perform a day’s work. Black people rely on food stamps provided to them by white taxpayers. Black people, including Barack and Michelle Obama, believe that the U.S. owes them something because they are black. Black children should work as janitors in their high schools as a way to keep them from becoming pimps. And the pathologies afflicting black Americans are caused partly by the Democratic Party, which has created in them a dependency on government not dissimilar to the forced dependency of slaves on their owners.
Judging by these claims, all of which have actually been put forward recently, here is a modest prediction: This presidential election will be one of the most race- soaked in recent history. It is already more race-soaked than the 2008 election, which, of course, marked the first time that a black man became a major-party candidate.
I don’t know why this is. Perhaps because Senator John McCain, the Republican contender in 2008, generally and admirably refused to race-bait. But the Republican candidates in today’s contest aren’t so meticulous about avoiding the temptation to dog-whistle their way to the nomination.
A Dark Art
Dog-whistling -- the use of coded, ambiguous language to appeal to the prejudices of certain subsets of voters -- is one of the darkest political arts. In this race, Newt Gingrich is streets ahead of his nearest competitor in its use. In addition to his comments about black children working as janitors, he has repeatedly referred to Obama as the country’s “food-stamp president.”
Food stamps have been fixed in the minds of many white voters as a government subsidy misused by blacks at least since 1976, when Ronald Reagan complained of “strapping young bucks” who used public assistance to buy “T-bone steaks.” (It is distressing to remember, in light of Reagan’s subsequent beatification, that he was to racial dog-whistling what Pat Buchanan has been to Jew-baiting; it was Reagan who also introduced the “welfare queen” into public discourse.)
The genius of dog-whistling is its deniability. It would be difficult for a figure such as Rush Limbaugh to run for public office, given his record of fairly straightforward race-baiting. (Limbaugh, who in the words of Harvard Law School’s Randall Kennedy is an “excellent entrepreneur of racial resentment,” has been on a tear lately. He has accused Obama -- who he says “talks honky” around white people -- and the first lady of abusing public funds as payback for the ill-treatment afforded their ancestors.)
But “food-stamp president” is just indirect enough that Gingrich is protected from detrimental blowback, at least during the largely white Republican primaries.
Kennedy, who studies the role of race in national elections, told me last week of a rule he uses to measure whether a candidate’s appeal to prejudice will succeed: If it takes more than two sentences for a critic to explain why a dog-whistle is a dog-whistle, the whistler wins. Gingrich seems to understand this, and so, despite criticism from blacks, has made the term “food-stamp president” a staple of his stump speeches.
Kennedy offers the theory that this campaign’s dog- whistling may be prompted by a realization by right-leaning provocateurs that voters have become inured to charges of racism. I suspect another phenomenon has hastened this realization: A handful of black Republicans have abetted dog-whistling by making their own bombastic statements about the degraded moral health of the black community, the putative foreignness of the Obamas and the Democratic Party’s plantation-like qualities.
The former presidential candidate Herman Cain, who last week endorsed Gingrich, told me in an interview last year that Obama was more “international” than American. He also said that, unlike Obama, he rejects the label “African-American” because he feels “more of an affinity for America than I do for Africa.”
Representative Allen West of Florida, one of two black Republican House members, recently called the Democratic Party a “21st-century plantation” and compared himself to Harriet Tubman. In August, he said, “Today in the black community, we see individuals who are either wedded to a subsistence check or an employment check. Democrat physical enslavement has now become liberal economic enslavement, which is just as horrible.”
How far in intent is West’s message from this one, recently delivered by Rick Santorum in Sioux City, Iowa: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” (Santorum later denied that he said the word “black,” arguing that what he actually said was “blah.” The denial is not credible.)
The writer Gary Younge has noted that in Woodbury County, which includes Sioux City, nine times more whites use food stamps than blacks do. But it doesn’t matter: Santorum wasn’t driven from the race for making such a blatant appeal to white resentment -- instead, he won the Iowa caucus.
An Odd Video
Recently, I watched an educational children’s video produced by a company part-owned by Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate (and current Fox News host). The video series, called “Learn Our History,” is meant as a corrective to a left-wing interpretation of the American story.
In one episode, a group of children are transported to Washington, in the late 1970s, a time when, we are told, “people are out of work and some of their morals are just gone.” The group, walking down a cartoon version of a street from “The Wire,” is confronted by a black mugger in a tank-top emblazoned with the word “Disco.” (Yes, “Disco.”) The mugger says to the time-travelers, “Gimme yo money!”
I asked Huckabee why the video advanced this particular stereotype. We had been speaking about the rationale for the video series, and he had just finished telling me that the project was meant to encourage moral leadership. Then he told me he had nothing to do with writing the show’s scripts, but it was his impression that the mugger wasn’t meant to be black. In any case, we were talking about a cartoon, he said, and cartoons traffic in “caricature.”
This is something cartoons share with many of today’s leading Republicans.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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