Are GOP candidates playing the race card?

David Goldman AP Kenneth Dansby, center, of Greenville, S.C., confronts Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, right, at … Continued

David Goldman

AP

Kenneth Dansby, center, of Greenville, S.C., confronts Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, right, at a campaign event on a recent comment about black people that has been criticized as being racially insensitive Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012, in Greenville, S.C. Both Newt Gingrich and Santorum faced criticism this week when they spoke of overhauling food stamps and other welfare programs by seeming to equate food stamp recipients and blacks.

The race card has come into play in the campaigning of GOP candidates in recent weeks, and it will surely be used in the future: The race card is being used because it sends a reassuring message to the white middle class that a particular GOP candidate is on their side.

That message, however, is getting to be a tougher sell all the time.

For the last thirty years, as the famous Congressional Budget Office study shows, the middle class in America has been falling farther and farther behind in terms of real income. I believe there is an accelerating “fear of falling,” in Barbara Ehrenreich’s memorable phrase, out of the middle class in America, no matter what your political affiliation. The challenge for Republican candidates, then, the candidates of the political party that has presided over the ravaging of the middle class in America, is to retain the loyalty of the GOP middle class and keep their votes.

Racially coded language is one way to do that. This has worked over and over again in American history because, I believe, “racial prejudice is America’s original sin.” The United States has a fundamental contradiction at its core; the ideals of freedom are contradicted by the reality of chattel slavery and its legacy in racism. As white Americans, we have not fully dealt with this contradiction, either in our faith or in our politics, and so it rises up again and again to haunt us.

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have both recently been accused of making racially insensitive remarks. Gingrich told a group of senior citizens in New Hampshire that “Obama is the best food stamp president in American history” and that he would be willing to go the NAACP, if invited, and tell African-Americans to “demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, commenting on Gingrich’s remarks, pointed out that “The majority of people using food stamps are not African-American, and most people using food stamps have a job.” Indeed, according to 2010 Department of Agriculture data, 34 percent of food stamp recipients were white, 22 percent were African-American, 16 percent were Hispanic, 4 percent were Native American and 3 percent were Asian. The rest did not indicate ethnicity.

But that’s the point. White Americans are falling out of the middle class, some of them are on SNAP, the program that administers what is historically and commonly known as food stamps, and the remainder is fearful there is worse to come.

Of course, race-baiting regarding government assistance programs is not new. Ronald Reagan used the stereotype of the “welfare queen” exceptionally well, as Paul Krugman points out. During the 1976 campaign, Reagan also used the story “about how upset workers must be to see an able-bodied man using food stamps at the grocery store. In the South — but not in the North — the food-stamp user became a ‘strapping young buck’ buying T-bone steaks.”

This kind of “southern strategy” is no longer the exclusive province of race baiting. The use of racial stereotypes about who’s on food stamps in New Hampshire is about reassuring white voters that the GOP’s policies on the economy will not hurt them.

In other words, not all race cards are created equal. Racialized political rhetoric endures in American politics, but the dynamics can change.

This is especially important to understand now that it is becoming ever more clear that the Republican candidate for president will be Mitt Romney. Even after the second debate attacks on Romney, he was still standing and did not seem particularly thrown.

So the GOP’s problem going forward is how to convince the white middle class voters who are in free fall in this economy, and who fear falling even further, to support Romney. Romney positions himself as the “businessman” who is a “job creator,” but his numbers on jobs he “created” are challenged over and over, including in the New Hampshire debates over the weekend. The question of not only the number of jobs Romney created, but especially his “Wall Street” economic model that came under fire as in this exchange with Newt Gingrich.

ROMNEY: “But in the business I had, we invested in over 100 different businesses and net … net, taking out the ones where we lost jobs and those that we added, those businesses have now added over 100,000 jobs.”

GINGRICH: “I’m not nearly as enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts, you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers.”

Gingrich is on target in this comment. This is the “Wall Street” model that has left American workers in the dust over time. A frequently cited Los Angeles Times review of the 10 largest investments made by Romney’s company, Bain, under his leadership, found that four of the big companies actually declared bankruptcy within a few years, costing thousands of jobs and often pension and severance benefits.

This is the new model of capitalism as demonstrated by venture capital investing. Venture capital firms are not actually in the business of creating jobs; they are in the business of making money for their investors. This is how the 1 percent did so well in the last thirty years. The richest can make money whether jobs are created or not.

This is a scary model for the 99 percent and one way to deal with fears on the part of voters is to make them fear something else even more.

That’s why the next phase of race baiting in this extraordinary presidential race will likely be racial code regarding President Obama. While his opponents challenged Romney’s “electability” in the New Hampshire debates, it’s important to examine what “electability” actually means when it comes to the white middle class and Romney’s candidacy.

“Electability” in regard to Romney seems to mean “anybody but Obama.” On every measure that conservative Republicans hold dear, Romney falls short as was evident from a Des Moines Register poll. It doesn’t appear to matter. Iowans weren’t passionate about Romney, but they’re passionate about “getting rid of President Obama next fall.”

You have to ask yourself, ‘What does that mean when it comes to the first African American President?’ I think one thing it means is that in the 2012 presidential campaign we will see more of the Nixon/Reagan racially coded politics, talking about race without explicitly seeming to talk about race, updated for this economy.

It will be important for the integrity of our faith, as well as for the health of our body politic, to name these racial codes when they come up, and explicitly reject them.

About

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
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