By Alan Bean
When Newt Gingrich calls Barack Obama the “food stamp president,” is he making a crude appeal to white racial resentment, or is he taking a race-neutral stand on economic policy?
To put the question another way, are we witnessing a return to the racially coded Willy Horton ads that brought George H. W. Bush back from the political grave?
The NPR story below gives both sides of the debate but, like most news coverage, substitutes he-said-she-said quotations for a nuanced discussion of the issue. Tali Mendelberg’s The Race Card is the definitive work on racial coding. Mendelberg notes that American politicians are no longer able to use race in an overt fashion. Since the civil rights era, he says, the idea of equality is too firmly established in American social life for overt appeals to white supremacy to work. This creates the impression that racism has no meaningful place in the political game, but such is not the case. White Americans are racially biased, but they also embrace the ideal of full racial equality. This is why racial coding can be highly effective.The Willie Horton ad, for instance, wasn’t interpreted as racial coding until Jesse Jackson suggested that candidate Bush was appealing to white resentment. The debate then centered on whether the ad was racially coded, most pundits concluding that it was not because race wasn’t mentioned in an overt way. Three years later, a solid consensus held that the ad was subtle form of race baiting because an image of a dangerous black man figured prominently in the ad.
This summary of Mendelberg’s argument appears in the book’s first chapter:
Politicians convey racial messages implicitly when two contradictory conditions hold: 1) they wish to avoid violating the norm of racial equality, and 2) they face incentives to mobilize racially resentful white voters. White voters respond to implicitly racial messages when two contradictory conditions hold: 1) they wish to adhere to the norm of racial equality, and 2) they resent blacks’ claims for public resources and hold negative racial stereotypes regarding work, violence, and sexuality. Today, these conditions hold for most Republican politicians and for many–arguably most–white voters. The contradiction among these conditions can be resolved most effectively through implicit racial communication. Politicians appeal to race implicitly because in order to win they need to mobilize whites’ racial resentment while adhering to the norm of racial equality established during the 1960s. In other words, they face incentives to mobilize race in the age of equality.
White voters respond to implicitly racial messages because they do not recognize these messages as racial and do not believe that their favorable response is motivated by racism. In fact, the racial reference in an implicit message, while subtle, is recognizable and works most powerfully through white voters’ racial stereotypes, fears, and resentments.
According to Mendelberg, “Race is perhaps the central social cleavage of American political life. Yet American society has committed itself to making race irrelevant.”
The upshot is that racial coding only works if nobody notices. George HW Bush was well behind Michael Dukakis in 1988, but his poll number soared the minute the Horton ad hit appeared. Then, when Jackson accused Bush of race coding, the Republican’s numbers began to drop–not enough to lose the election, but significantly. Although hardly anyone sided with Jackson at the time, the mere suggestion that Bush was appealing to racist sentiment hurt him.
Much depends on the willingness of opinion leaders to call politicians on this stuff.
All of the Republican presidential hopefuls take on President Obama in their stump speeches, attacking his health care plan, his jobs record and more.
But the shorthand former House Speaker Newt Gingrich uses, calling the nation’s first black president the “food stamp president,” is raising questions.
It’s a theme Gingrich has used since Iowa, and he returned to it during a forum in Charleston, S.C., over the weekend.
“Over here you have a policy which, with Reagan and me as speaker, created millions of jobs — it’s called paychecks. Over here you have the most successful food stamp president in American history, Barack Obama,” Gingrich said.
South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, who is black, says it is no longer the “welfare queen,” a line oft-touted by Ronald Reagan, but “king of the food stamps.”
“I guess a lot of people see it as, if Ronald Reagan can do it and be so lionized by conservatives, then I ought to be able to do it,” says Clyburn, the third ranking Democrat in the House.
Clyburn says it’s an old strategy: candidates using race as a wedge to get votes.
“That is something they have been told will work to connect the president as being a black-oriented president, taking away from somebody else to give to black people,” he says.
That depends on the perception that African-Americans benefit disproportionately from the food stamp program, even though blacks are not the majority of food stamp recipients.
But former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts — a black Republican who is campaigning for Gingrich in South Carolina — says that’s not what the debate is about.
“I think you have sensitivities, things that happen on both sides that I personally might not like, but I think it is a fact that more people [are] on food stamps today because we don’t have jobs,” Watts says. “And that shouldn’t be the economic policy of our country.”
Race Another Campaign Tool
While Gingrich has received the most attention for linking the nation’s first black president to food stamps, some of the other Republican candidates have also had to defend perceived racial insensitivities.
Nothing in this year’s contest, however, has reached the level of a notorious race-based whisper campaign in the 2000 South Carolina primary.
“I think the marker everybody remembers is the story in the McCain campaign — McCain’s got a black child … which is all very quiet but aggressively done,” says University of South Carolina political science professor Mark Thompkins.
Thompkins says race is one of several tools employed in the rough and tumble of South Carolina politics. Gingrich’s food stamp line is more subtle, he says, but sends a message.
“That Newt is going to take care of us and not take care of them,” Thompkins says. “And there’s an ‘us and them’ quality to this kind of language, which is pretty rough stuff, right? But that’s the code.”
Black voters were picking up on it Saturday, when Gingrich held a town hall at Jones Memorial AME Zion Church in Columbia.
In attendance that day, Raushane Thompson questioned Gingrich about the characterization. Gingrich said it’s not about the president — it’s about his policies.
“I say that because more Americans today are on food stamps than in any other time in American history, and I think we need a policy that creates jobs and allows Americans to have a job and to have a paycheck,” Gingrich said.
Howard Furch turned out to hear Gingrich at a statehouse rally in Columbia. He thinks the food stamp line is less about race and more about whether the candidates get what it’s like to struggle to put food on your table.
“He can ring up a $500,000 Tiffany bill, but he can relate to us? Oh, no,” Furch said. “Romney can sit up there and bet Gov. Perry 10,000 bucks — he can relate to us?”
Furch raised a question sure to be heard again in the fall: Are middle-class voters feeling more resentment toward the rich or toward taxes that pay for programs, like food stamps, intended to help the poor?