In Which I Confess An Inability To Decipher Racial Code

If everyone said they saw “X” and you didn’t, would your first instinct be to wonder if there was something wrong with your vision, that “X” was there and you had somehow missed it? Make It worse – what if your failure to see “X” represented not just a mistake or oversight on your part, but something that you would call a serious moral deficiency?

That’s how I’ve felt the last two days since the Republican debate on Fox generated massive amounts of the online equivalent of hooting and hollering about Newt Gingrich the racist. If I’ve really been blind to something important and obvious, I want to correct myself. But the honest truth is that I didn’t see any “there” there.

Let me be very clear: I do not want Newt Gingrich to be the next President. (Not that I believe there is a serious danger of this actually happening.) I disagree sharply with his views on basic issues about the Constitution. He has already promised to break his oath of office if elected. He is not temperamentally, intellectually, or experientially suited for a job as an executive. If it came down to a choice between the incumbent and Gingrich, I would prefer four more years of Barack Obama, a weak leader, a sellout with respect to civil liberties, and overall a profound disappointment. Obama is at least less of a loose cannon.

But I have simply not heard or felt the outrageous racism of which he has recently been widely accused, including by writers here whose opinions and insights I respect. I did hear him do something else, of which I am not particularly fond and which does not make a great deal of sense to me. But I haven’t been able to summon up the same righteous indignation about this thing that I did not see or observe. That’ll come at the end of the post, if you can make it all the way there without dissolving into an apoplexy of outrage at my appalling racial insensitivity.

Like I say, I’m apparently in the minority about this. Lots of people heard the dog whistles loud and clear in this exchange between Speaker Gingrich and Fox News personality Juan Williams, serving as one of the questioners in the debate:

WILLIAMS: Speaker Gingrich, 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: No. I don’t see that. (APPLAUSE) You know, my daughter, Jackie, who’s sitting back there, Jackie Cushman, reminded me that her first job was at First Baptist Church in Carrollton, Georgia, doing janitorial work at 13. And she liked earning the money. She liked learning that if you worked, you got paid. She liked being in charge of her own money, and she thought it was a good start. I had a young man in New Hampshire who walked up to me. I’ve written two newsletters now about this topic. I’ve had over 50 people write me about the jobs they got at 11, 12, 13 years of age. Ran into a young man who started a doughnut company at 11. He’s now 16. He has several restaurants that take his doughnuts. His father is thrilled that he’s 16 because he can now deliver his own doughnuts. (LAUGHTER) What I tried to say — and I think it’s fascinating, because Joe Klein reminded me that this started with an article he wrote 20 years ago. New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket. They’d learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. They could work in the cafeteria. They could work in the front office. They could work in the library. They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money. (APPLAUSE, CROSSTALK)
WILLIAMS: The suggestion that he made was about a lack of work ethic. And I’ve got to tell you, my e-mail account, my Twitter account has been inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities. You saw some of this reaction during your visit… (BOOING) … to a black church in South Carolina. You saw some of this during your visit to a black church in South Carolina, where a woman asked you why you refer to President Obama as “the food stamp president.” It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people. (BOOING)
GINGRICH: Well, first of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. (APPLAUSE) Now, I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable. (LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE) Second, you’re the one who earlier raised a key point. There’s — the area that ought to be I-73 was called by Barack Obama a corridor of shame because of unemployment. Has it improved in three years? No. They haven’t built the road. They haven’t helped the people. They haven’t done anything. (APPLAUSE)
BAIER: Finish your thought, Mr. Speaker.
GINGRICH: One last thing.
BAIER: Yes, sir.
GINGRICH: So here’s my point. I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy, I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job.(APPLAUSE)

Gingrich is indeed throwing red meat out to the very partisan, and in my opinion ill-mannered, crowd. But is it racial red meat or just plain old liberal-bashing? One argument is that you’ve got to hear it and not just read it; it’s embedded in Gingrich’s tone, more than his words. Fair enough; I’m a big believer on the importance of tone and I understand well that a skilled politician can pack a lot more information with inflection and body language than he can with only his words. So here’s the video:

Despite everyone seeming to mutually understand to the contrary, in this exchange, Gingrich says not one word about race. The only racial groups ever raised in the exchange are mentioned by Williams. Gingrich does not identify the race of the kid in New Hampshire with the doughnut business. (We can safely assume that his daughter is white.) But the legend is that Gingrich is a master of speaking in code, of sending out dog whistles that only his followers can hear. I apparently don’t speak this code, I didn’t hear the whistle. What did I miss?

Was I supposed to make an inference about janitors, as though janitors are all of African descent? I live in Southern California and the bulk of the janitors I see here are Latinos. Perhaps South Carolina or New York are different from California in that respect – although when I’ve been in New York, it looked pretty diverse to me. I haven’t been in South Carolina in years, nor ever for any substantial amount of time aside from restaurants and gas stations near I-95 so I don’t have any perspective on that state’s racial makeup.

I do hear condescension in Gingrich’s tone towards Williams. Part of that shows up in the transcript – notice how Gingrich addresses Williams as “Juan,” while Williams addresses Gingrich as “Speaker Gingrich.” There is an attack going on, and it takes the form of an African American journalist challenging a white politician, who visibly and audibly adopts a posture of offense and counter-attacks. But I can’t, for the life of me, find it in my heart to say that simply because Gingrich throws a counter-offensive at Williams, this is racial or even an appeal to the inherent racism of his audience. So it can’t be just that a white man used sharp words contradicting a black man.

There seems to be some weight to the accusation resting in the way Gingrich said “Juan,” with, as Chris Matthews says in the video above, some sort of insinuation that you either hear or you don’t. I didn’t hear it. I heard contempt, but I can’t understand what is qualitatively different about this contempt than the contempt that Gingrich might have laid on, for instance, Keith Olbermann. Is there something wrong with me that I didn’t? Am I bigoted, or at least racially insensitive for not hearing it?

There’s the association of black people with food stamps. But again, Williams did that. Now, Gingrich did not object to it. But was that incumbent upon him to do? In a setting like that? As for me, I associate food stamps with poverty, not with race, and poverty seems pretty ecumenical to me. When I was a teenager working after school in a grocery store in a declining neighborhood, I saw lots of people on food stamps. This was back when they were really stamps – scrip that the store accepted in lieu of currency for some kinds of products. It seemed to me that the users of this scrip were split about equally between those of apparently European, African, and Latino descent. Perhaps my now quarter-century old memory is faulty, or the data I’m recalling is just out of date. Is it somehow a particularly “black thing” to be on food stamps and I’m just out of touch about this?

What about the “Get a job, you lazy welfare queens!” meme? You don’t have to educate me about how the phrase “welfare queen” has a racial connotation, but I’m sorry, I didn’t hear Gingrich issue a call to despise “welfare queens” in those remarks. I heard “Welfare’s all Obama’s got, I’ll get you jobs.” I also heard a silly story about Gingrich’s daughter as if that was somehow supposed to impress me (it didn’t) and another silly story about a kid selling doughnuts (a little more impressive, but obviously atypical). If the subject came up, Williams raised it, and the worst I can say about Gingrich is that he was silent about that topic because he wanted to hit his talking points.

Now, here’s what I did hear, from Gingrich himself: “The liberal media wants to make everything about race, and I’m the victim of it here.” This is particularly off-putting because the personification of the antagonistic liberal media here is Juan Williams, who does not strike me as a particularly robust example of the typical liberal media crusader. Is it racial because Gingrich’s “liberal media” whipping boy happens to be Black? Twelve years ago, this role was filled by Dan Rather, who is not Black, but was the personification of the “liberal media ready to sacrifice truth to ambush the Republican.” In that case, there was some meat to that myth. Juan Williams, though, is not exactly Markos Moulitsas in terms of his apparent politics.

There’s a venerable narrative, tracing back to at least 1960, of the “liberal media” treating conservative politicians unfairly and laboring to subtly portray anyone right of center in the worst light possible. We speak of narratives and point to things that support or detract from them, but at some point a narrative escalates to the level of myth, and the “liberal media bashing conservatives” narrative is approaching that point in our culture. Once something is a myth, it stops needing to be objectively, factually verifiable, and becomes significant in its own right, for its own emotional resonance. I submit that for at least social conservatives, we’re past the point of narrative and into the realm of myth. It really seems to me that Gingrich is playing to that myth rather than to racism.

That narrative dovetails into the oppression of political correctness, of weirdo liberals trying to impose some kind of unnatural, unreal vision of the world in which conservatives are portrayed as evil for no objectively good reason, and children are brainwashed through artificial language into turning against everything their parents love, cherish, and think of as good about America. So there’s that myth out there too. But again, that’s not really a racial myth.

And I heard, loud and clear, Gingrich working into his answer “My daughter worked in a Baptist church,” which equals, “I am a Christian, just like you South Carolinans are, so vote for me because I’m like you.” This does not mean that Gingrich was pandering to those who still believe, in the absence of any credible evidence, that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. No, it’s a simple appeal to religious tribalism. Religious tribalism, however, is not racial tribalism.

I’m sure there are ways that we could attack Gingrich’s factual assertion about which President has “put” more people on food stamps – but no one seems to care about whether he was right or wrong. It all seems to be about impressions, emotions, perceptions, dog whistles and code. I heard media-bashing, liberal-bashing, and Christian boosterism — tired, old, shopworn, and dishonest tropes. Mainly media-bashing. But I didn’t hear racism and so many of the rest of you all did. So please, help me out here.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Eighty-four ethics charges were filed against Speaker Gingrich during his term, including claiming tax-exempt status for a college course run for political purposes. However we say it, Mr. Gingrich is all about the money. In a recent story, “Gingrich was ask to return the estimated $1.6 million he received for providing strategic advice to Freddie Mac, the quasi-government agency (an agency that has lost millions) that guarantees home mortgages. Gingrich has said he acted as a historian, not a lobbyist”. A “historian”, is that the history of greed? He may just sell you a book on it!

    • Did you even read the thread? Or is this spam?

      You certainly didn’t read my request to direct comments to the main page.

  2. People making public statements is a lot like a Rorschach Test- listeners/viewers project onto them whatever is in their own hearts and minds. I, too, saw no rascism in Gingrich’s comments, but that’s just my own Rorschach response.

    What I am noticing, is that blog posts regarding “Am I a racist or am I not a racist?” are often the longest, most soul-searching of them all. The blogger is often saying to the readers “Am I the only one that thinks this way?; is there something wrong with my morality and sensitivity to others?” We can’t have conversations like this in many aspects of everyday life because there are so many who would pounce on our words and accuse us of the “R” word. Look at all the public figures who have been fired for minor (usually) race-related comments that others react to like a Rorschach Test.

    Anyhow Burt, if you are dense and insensitive, so am I. And, I don’t think either one of us is. I just think we’re living in a time and society where self-righteous indignation is the flavor of the week.

  3. 2-3-12
    Jonathan Haidt on Moyers & Co.
    Civil responsibility
    Tribal team based loyalty
    Talks about welfare state but doesn’t mention subsidies for the wealthy

    Jonathan Haidt’s thesis doesn’t hold water down here in the trenches where 47 MILLION Americans struggle below the poverty level. VICTIMS of the greed stricken, power mad domestic/foreign policies of the RIGHT. Please tell something, ANYTHING that would make me want to compromise with these Republican FOOLS and their low grade thought processes…

    Compromise becomes a dirty word when the people you’re trying deal with are f***‘n insane. How’s THIS for contentious mofo’s:

    * Conservatives hate the government helping poor Americans they have no problem giving BILLIONS in subsidies and tax breaks to a bunch of corrupt, wealthy, silver spoon, trust fund baby aristocrats. Would Haliburton or Blackwater even exist without our tax dollars? What about Michele Bachmann getting farm subsidies or Mitt Romney devastating communities after they gave his companies tax breaks and funding?

    “When did Right-wing Evangelical Christians lose what JESUS said about …the least of my brothers” ? (Matthew 25:40) Lloyd the Baptist

    Ok, I admit there’s a small minority of Americans who are lazy sponges who’d rather get drunk or do drugs than pay rent or get a job. I think this has more to do with reckless economic policy and the War on Drugs, both HUGE failures under the Conservative CONTROL by AUTHORITY mind set. Not to mention the many lower class families were ruined by casualties of the foolish Bush/Cheney wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    What leadership, character or morals have Republicans displayed since Obama/Biden was elected? Did these so-called “great americans” ever considered that the Obama Administration has been stuck cleaning up the huge debt mess Bush/Cheney left for American people?

    NO solutions, NO rational stance, clear agendas or common sense policy… JUST Sarah Palin/Glenn Beck/Rush Limbaugh groupies parroting talking points!

    Have you ever LISTENED to the average right-wing fanatic? It’s like every Conservative in America is auditioning for a spot on the FOX News channel. (News Corp owned by Saudi Royals)

    COME ON, are you Republican voters #*~/‘n INSANE? Am I missing something here? Didn’t Conservatives just have 8 YEARS of Bush/Cheney and Republican controlled Congress (1994-2006) to put their warped ideology into practice? AND IT ALMOST DESTROYED THE GREATEST NATION ON EARTH!

    Waste, fraud, abuse, scandal, sexual deviancy, corruption, lies, incompetence, job outsourcing, off-shore tax evasion, reckless economics, welfare for the rich, deregulation, war profiteering, Constitutional violations AND a Corporate Crime Wave of epic proportions…. The WORST looting of a nation’s wealth and resources in the history of MANKIND!

    Where was the Tea Party anger THEN? (ya #*~/ ignorant hypocrites)

    But you want Democrats/Progressives to believe if only Conservatism had one more chance it can work? The very definition of insanity, isn’t IT? Over and over AGAIN! Just separate yourselves from Bush/Cheney… bull$#!~ MISINFORMED, mentally deficient people into believing they’re part of a NEW Conservative Movement. (read “Pity the Billionaire” by Thomas Frank)

    In OTHER WORDS Republican Party talking points are based on the ignorance of their constituents. They revise history and LIE because they CAN… because morons who vote for Republicans DON’T KNOW THEIR OWN HISTORY! This ain’t NO Tea Party… this is a CLASS WAR! Do I miss George W. Bush? #*~/ NO!

    Haidt said Progressives don’t make as good an argument as Conservatives but that’s because voices such as my own are ignored. I’m ready to push myself upon the American scene whether all you Ivory Tower @$$holes like or not. Read and follow the links for all the TRUTH one needs to be a moral human who loves the USA.
    ©2012 by FG Esposito (one of the founders of Conscious Man Consultants)

    My favorite blog
    As posted
    “I think we need to focus on those in the TOP 1% who made their fortunes on the backs of American workers… with American ingenuity, technology, ideas… using infrastructure paid for by the American taxpayer… And how did they repay us? The silver spoon, trust fund baby m’f***er’s moved all our jobs to Asia, fouled our environment with stuff that would make a bill goat puke and turned our politicians into a stable of high priced prostitutes.

    To be honest a few fanatics who’ve perverted Islam don’t scare me near as much as those FOOLS that believe capitalism can survive without ETHICS, RESPONSIBILITY and ACCOUNTABILITY

    Concerned Citizens educate themselves to the ways of TRUE debate, righteous anger, argument, etc. We’ve all read THE text on this subject and know about the “Opposing Viewpoints Series” (Bender/Leone) put out by Greenhaven Press:
    “It can be said that those who do not completely understand their adversary’s point of view do not fully understand their own“ DAVID L. BENDER

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