The standout moment of this week’s South Carolina debate featured Newt Gingrich confronting moderator Juan Williams over the latter’s charge of racial insensitivity. Pressed by Williams to defend his statements that “black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps” and that Barack Obama is the “Food Stamp President,” Gingrich boldly took up the challenge. Rejecting Williams’s suggestion that such statements “belittle the poor and racial minorities,” Gingrich offered up a full-throated defense of the ennobling value of menial work and pointed out that food stamps have soared during Obama’s presidency.
In a less crudely partisan media climate, Gingrich’s response might have led to a civil discussion about the problems facing the black underclass and the proper scope of the social safety net. Instead it unleashed howls of outrage from the left and the media elite, which rose up on cue to denounce Gingrich as a “racist.”
“Hardball” host Chris Matthews kicked off the smear campaign, insisting that Gingrich was sending dog-whistle signals to racists. In Matthews’s conspiratorial telling, “this whole conversation isn’t about poverty, but about race. It’s about a candidate [Gingrich] who knows just how to make his point to appeal to a certain kind of voter.” Lest this seem too subtle, the New York Times soon weighed in with an editorial accusing Gingrich of stoking “racial animosity.” Not to be outdone, the Economist chimed in that Gingrich was pandering to “bigots.” Al Sharpton, in the ultimate pot-and-kettle act, blasted Gingrich for engaging in “racial demagoguery.”
All of this was predicable. Equally predictable was that none of Gingrich’s overheated critics could offer a substantive explanation for why he was wrong, let alone why anything he said amounted to racial bigotry. For instance, as Gingrich has noted in the past, the unemployment rate for black teenagers hit 43 percent last year. That amounts to a serious social problem, since early employment has been shown to cultivate the social skills and the ethos of professional responsibility and discipline that is so critical in job success later in life. Yet Gingrich’s critics seem more interested in condemning the former speaker for calling attention to this problem than in examining its consequences for black Americans.
That’s not to say — as Gingrich did not — that teen unemployment is exclusively a problem for the black community. Department of Labor Statistics show that overall unemployment among teenagers reached 27 percent in 2010, the highest since the government began tracking such statistics after World War II. Gingrich himself alluded to the wider implications of teenage unemployment when he cited the beneficial experience of his daughter Jackie, who worked part-time as a janitor at a church when she was 13. But acknowledging the fact that teenage unemployment is a national problem does not alter the grim reality that it is particularly destructive for the black community. To dismiss Gingrich’s point about black teenage unemployment as simple racism is not only intellectually vulgar and specious, but it glosses over a real and pressing social ill.
But then, Gingrich’s detractors aren’t interested in actually having a conversation about these realities. The New York Times descended into almost comic pettiness when it complained that, contra Gingrich’s claim, President Obama had not personally put anyone on food stamps. Even the White House got in on the act, dismissing the “Food Stamp President” label as “crazy.”