Throughout his campaign, Newt Gingrich has painted himself as the Republican candidate who will reach out to minority voters, particularly the African American community. Gingrich escalated those comments Thursday when he expressed a willingness to address the NAACP on “why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” When the NAACP called Newt’s comments “divisive,” Newt appeared baffled by their unenthusiastic response. Here’s the problem.
Newt’s comments about the poor African Americans hit on a basic theme: that liberal policies have failed to raise them out of poverty and that Newt will explain to them how his Republican policies are preferable. At a dinner in Baltimore this summer, Newt explained to a largely white audience that the Republican message had not reached poor minority communities. “But we have to have the courage to walk into that neighborhood, to talk to that preacher, to visit that small business, to talk to that mother. And we have to have a convincing case that we actually know how to create jobs,” he said. “The morning they believe that, you’re going to see margins in percents you never dreamed of decide there’s a better future…I will bet you there is not a single precinct in this state in which the majority will pick for their children food stamps over paychecks.”
Newt Gingrich kept beating his ‘food stamps over paychecks’ drum throughout the fall in largely white places like Iowa and New Hampshire. Soon, his theory morphed into a plan to employ poor children as janitors at their schools. At every campaign stop his stump speech hits on the paychecks vs. food stamps motif. Finally, Newt said he would take his message all the way to the NAACP, and they were not amused.
“It is a shame that the former Speaker feels that these types of inaccurate, divisive statements are in any way helpful to our country,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous. “The majority of people using food stamps are not African-American, and most people using food stamps have a job.”
Now that the media and the NAACP have jumped on his remarks, Newt is pushing back, saying Friday: “For the life of me I cannot understand why having a conservative Republican who cares about young people having jobs should be seen as such a terrible idea. Or should be seen as somehow a racist characterization. I think all young people of all backgrounds should have jobs.”
For all Newt’s apparent bafflement, the reason the NAACP is miffed is clear. Newt is not talking to the black community; he is employing stereotypes about that community to talk to white audiences. (He’s not alone here, the NAACP put out a statement Thursday when Rick Santorum did the exact same thing.) Even if Newt does visit the NAACP, the underlying point is not reaching the black community, it’s about appealing to white voters with a characterization of the black community as dependent on welfare. The NAACP is being used as a foil to appeal to white voters with Republican talking points about welfare, dependency, and the failures of their community.
There’s a second layer as well. If there’s one thing that makes conservatives bristle, it’s accusations that they are racist. Newt’s comments assuage those fears. As he puts it, the problem is not that African Americans don’t like Republicans or their ideas, it’s that they’ve never heard them (which seems an insulting underestimation of them in itself). What Newt is saying to conservative audiences is that African Americans vote for Democrats because they don’t know about our policies, not because our policies don’t help them. Not only is he appealing to white voters by stereotyping minorities as welfare dependent, but he is also doing so by assuring them that they aren’t racist.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.