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.”
Except that it isn’t. Under President Obama, the number of people on food stamps has risen to a record high. As of October 2011, there were over 46 million people enrolled in the food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP). A large part of the reason, as even the _Times_ concedes, is that the Obama administration expanded the eligibility for food stamps as part of its stimulus package. In fairness, President Bush also eased the eligibility restrictions during his term. But even taking that into account, there has been a 44.5 surge in SNAP benefits since Obama took office. Much of that increase, it bears mention, has been among whites. At the very least, this fact complicates the claim of Gingrich’s media critics that in bemoaning the proliferation of food stamps he is driven by racial animus.
If the “Food Stamp President” charge resonates among Republicans, it’s not because they’re racists. Rather, it is because the Obama administration is particularly vulnerable to the criticism that it has expanded the welfare state far beyond what even the tough economic times warrant. Thus the administration stretched the definition of poverty to such an extent that it now encompasses families who own a full range of amenities – from refrigerators, to microwaves, to cable or satellite TV – and who lack neither adequate food nor sufficient living space. The rise in food stamps is part and parcel of the massive expansion of the redistributive state on Obama’s watch. It’s precisely this fact that Gingrich’s food stamp dig is intended to highlight.
As even his supporters would concede, Newt Gingrich is an imperfect candidate, one who has made his share of mistakes on the stump. But one thing he cannot plausibly be accused of is racism. Indeed, if the term is applicable at all, it is to the self-righteous media lynch mob that would prefer to focus its energies on smearing a Republican candidate than squaring up to a hard truth facing the black community about which they profess to care.