Gingrich’s race-baiting

Now that Donald Trump and Herman Cain are out of the GOP nominating contest, it’s Newt Gingrich who’s playing the race card to gain support from conservative Republican primary voters. As he likes to tell us, he’s a smart man and a historian, so he’s no doubt aware that the language of “the culture of poverty” and discussions of a particular group’s “habits” are code for old, racist stereotypes unfairly associating being poor with African-Americans and people of color who are lazy, unintelligent and unmotivated.  

This is not a new line of thought for conservatives or for the former Speaker of the House. During a roundtable discussion in 1995 with African-American journalists hosted by the conservative magazine National Minority Politics, Gingrich explained to the group that African-Americans weren’t doing enough to help themselves, that going to church and relying on the legal system (another euphemism for “not earned through hard work and therefore not deserving”) to gain equal access to schools are bad habits standing in the way of economic success and wealth. Gingrich noted it’s “difficult to acquire wealth as a black in America,” because “The truth is that preachers and lawyers have been more dominant in the black culture in the last 40 years than have businesspeople. … The habits of the church and the habits of the lawsuit have been more powerful than the habits of acquisition and the habits of job creation.”

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The “culture of poverty” was originally introduced into the American lexicon by Michael Harrington (a true American socialist) in the early 1960s as an examination of multiple factors contributing to near-inescapable rural and urban poverty — poor health due to lack of access, poor housing, lack of skills or good schools — and the need for a comprehensive approach to the problem rather than a “rising tide lifts all boats” strategy. In a 1965 report on social and economic struggles in black America, then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Patrick Moynihan invoked “the culture of poverty” to describe “a tangle of pathology” (habits and behaviors) in urban black families and communities that was seen as contributing to the lack of progress. The report and “the culture of poverty” were seen by some as patronizing, over-simplistic and racist, in part for unfairly blaming African-Americans without recognizing other factors and structural impediments. From there the historic, stereotypical over-association of “the poor” and “welfare” with African-Americans and people of color as lazy, unskilled, undeserving recipients of public assistance further took root in the American psyche.

In the early ’70s, the neocons seized on the argument that federal welfare programs fed the “culture of poverty” as part of their argument against further federal funding, and Democrats have been on defense ever since. A recent study by NPR, the Kaiser Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government even found that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say poor people are not doing enough to help themselves out of poverty.

All of which historian Gingrich no doubt knew when he recently said at an event in Iowa, “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works ... They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’ unless it’s illegal.” Gingrich went on to say that what’s needed are “extraordinarily radical proposals to fundamentally change the culture of poverty in America.”

It’s shameful that Gingrich is using patronizing, racist code language to stir biases, and stereotypes to get votes.

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.