Gingrich: The Wrong Conversation
One of the things that makes me a less-than-stellar blogger is that my mind works on a time delay. It takes me time to process information and determine what I think about it. And so naturally, it’s the week following all of the interest in South Carolina that I finally piece together my thoughts. I will try to do better in the future and white about any damn fool thing that comes to mind.
What jumps out at me with the whole affair is the degree to which we were often talking about the wrong things, stuck in gears of racist/not-racist. Very little good, in my experience, comes from racist/not-racist conversations. Or maybe, as a white guy with southern roots, it’s something that just makes me feel tremendously uncomfortable regardless of where I come down on the matter. That doesn’t mean it’s not a conversation worth having, of course. But in the accusation/counteraccusation tone that the conversation took, I didn’t get a lot out of my reading of it and I don’t regret my relative non-participation.
Juan Williams’s original question related to Gingrich’s comments on what he would say to the NAACP and whether or not he was concerned about the racial implications of what he said and if he could understand how one might be offended. Intended or not, this question does come across as an accusation of racism, at least to some people. And once the accusation is made, the conversation takes on a life of its own. I think a different question might have yielded better results. Something along the lines of:
TRUMAN: 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. As a cursory review of the statistics on poverty and food stamps will reveal, it is not limited to a single race or single subculture. How comfortable would you feel going to pockets of poverty in West Virginia and questioning the West Virginian work ethic? Would you hold them to the same standard, or do you think there are differences? If there are differences, what do you think they are?
I choose West Virginia based largely on stereotype and because it’s a state that nominee Gingrich would need to win. If WV is a bad example, there are pockets in Idaho, Montana, and just about everywhere. Look under some rocks and find the best example. The point is that there is white poverty and it absolutely needs to be accounted for when a presidential candidate accuses another subculture of being too content with public assistance and not content with work.
I don’t know how Gingrich would have answered my question. He might have given the exact same answer. He might have thrown WV under a bus. He might have tried to outline some differences. Regardless of his answer, though, I think that you have to confront this issue when you talk about poverty and government support. And by shining the light on poor whites, the ensuing conversation here and elsewhere might have been dedicated less to accusation/counteraccusation and more towards how we look at poverty in different groups and the distinctions we make or don’t make.
Personally, I don’t think that Republican contempt for a perceived lack of worth ethic is entirely based on race. There are small government people who resent welfare in any capacity. There are also cultural issues that are not entirely racially defined. There was a lot of scoffing at #OWS protesters, a great many of whom were white (but they fit other demographics that conservatives often reflexively mistrust). But once you’re talking about West Virginia, or Montana or Idaho, you’re talking about people who are at least perceptually a part of a culture that Republicans, and white South Carolinians, are less enthusiastic to dismiss as lazy, entitled, or what have you. That’s why I consider the question important.
For my own part, my perceptions of poverty and government support changed a great deal as my wife and I have moved from here to there. She has worked at one government or county or charity hospital after another serving different kinds of poor: Urban black, rural white, immigrant, Native American, urban white, and urban Asian. And, because we have tried to live near the downtown hospitals, we have lived in all sorts of poor communities. Some characteristics – the type that Gingrich decries in the black community – transcend specific culture. It’s something to remember apart from accusations of racism. It’s something that needs to be a part of the discussion if only to keep the discussion from being a proxy for race (as much as we can).
I have found that many liberals often have a disdain for rural, poor white folks. But one thing you can’t get around is that they do favor policies that will help them get by. Conservatives have made it more than clear that they are willing to be vocal about poor minorities needing to solve their own problems. It is an open question the degree to which they are willing to say the same about poor whites from the Heartland. A question that should be answered.
[Header image modified from original image at Wikimedia Commons, c.berlet/publiceye.org]