Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Tuesday, October 25, 2016

I got my first job when I was 12. The deacons at my church paid me $2 a week to keep it swept and mopped.

So I do not need Newt Gingrich to lecture me about a good work ethic. In this, I suspect, I speak for the vast majority of 39 million African-Americans.

There has been a lot of talk about whether Gingrich’s recent language, including his performance at last week’s South Carolina debate and his earlier declaration that Barack Obama has been America’s best “food-stamp president,” amounts to a coded appeal to racist sensitivities. The answer is simple: yes.

In this, Gingrich joins a line of Republicans stretching back at least to Richard Nixon. From that president’s trumpeting of “law and order” (i.e., “I will get these black demonstrators off the streets”) to Ronald Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens” (i.e., “I will stop these lazy black women from living high on your tax dollars”) to George H.W. Bush’s use of Willie Horton (i.e., “Elect me or this scary black man will get you”) the GOP long ago mastered the craft of using nonracial language to say racial things.

So Gingrich is working from a well-thumbed playbook when he hectors blacks about their work ethic and says they should demand paychecks and not be “satisfied” with food stamps. As if most blacks had ever done anything else. As if an unemployment rate that for some mysterious reason runs twice the national average does not make paychecks hard to come by. As if blacks were the only, or even the majority of, food-stamp recipients.

When challenged on this by debate moderator Juan Williams, Gingrich went after it like Babe Ruth after a hanging curve ball, delivering a strident defense of the need to teach poor kids the value of a paycheck. “Only the elites,” he lectured, “despise earning money.” It won him a standing ovation.

Let’s be clear. To the degree Gingrich’s argument is that stubborn, intergenerational poverty is often fed by habits and ways of life inimical to the building of wealth, he is exactly right. But those habits and ways afflict the white hollows of Appalachia as much as the black heart of urban America, and when Gingrich defines poverty solely as blackness, he is not critiquing poverty, but race.

The South Carolina audience sure got the message. That state is one of the poorest in the Union: fifth-lowest median income, poverty rate of 18.2 percent. So if the point is just that the poor must get up off their backsides, why would they applaud? They are the poor.

They applaud because they understand he is not talking about them. He is saying, “Elect me and I will get these black people’s hands out of your pocket.” For as much as Republicans decry the so-called politics of envy, they still seem right at home practicing the politics of racial resentment — and mass distraction.

In so doing, they tap a rich vein of stereotype and preconception about the supposed laziness of African-American people.

One of my students shared this parable: A rich white man sits with a poor white man and poor black man at a table laden with cookies. The rich white man snatches all the cookies but one, then turns to the poor white man and says, “Watch out for that darky. I think he wants to take your cookie.”

It works every time.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at [email protected])

  • awake in St Charles

    You can always count on Leonard Pitts to scream racism. Fact is there are more whites than blacks on food stamps.(and all forms of welfare as well)Gingrich is trying to say the country is worse off now. Interpreting that to be racist is racist in itself.

  • 1olderbutwiser1

    You nailed it. The percentage basis may be more leaning out of the black population, but since percentage-wise whites are a greater number, nationally,their percentage is smaller. Poverty due to lack of intellectual capacity or local opportunity or laziness (one may argue such the same as intellectual capacity deficiency) knows no favorite race, only personal characteristics, that of those who don’t adequately plan ahead, are only willing to work to a level they feel “comfortable” with, and usually don’t save, but rather participate in indebtedness, living beyond their means. I see it all the time. Most people deny it being their fault, they are simply inexplicably “victims”, and never fully realize and admit it is their own shortcomings that have caused it. I am of course talking about adults, not their offspring…..which is something the really already poor, should not produce. You know, poverty is indeed a cancer, and few people are willing to accept, acseed to, acknowledge truth regardless of how harsh, and comprehend why it happens, and be outspoken about it in public….since it is indeed being “politically incorrect”. That manner of speaking started with another abandoned child, Bill Clinton. Why is america voting for abandoned children for president?

  • hermanwyatt


  • zeb01

    Newt Gingrich, and his race-baiting ilk, have no problem with the government taking money from a middle class family and giving it to multi-millionaires to fly around in private jets, but are incensed when that same middle class family suddenly needs money to buy a jar of baby food and a can of soup.

  • Dik

    Mr. Pitts

    If I wanted to keep Blacks on the plantation, there is no better policy, including food stamps, than that constructed by the present and former Democrat leaders.

    Dik Thurston
    Colorado Springs

  • freethinker

    Just for grins, Leonard, try to see the world without looking at everything through a racial prism. You’d be surprised how much different it looks and you might find Republicans are far more color blind than the party you currently support. ‘Code words’ are a Democrat invention. Heck, this little paragraph is probably full of them if you are predisposed to finding them.

  • patricia wiseman

    There is a general misconspection about welfare. It is a fact that most welfare recipents receive assistance for only a few years. We say that women should not have abortions but then we offer little in support to raise the child. It takes a community to raise a child but in America we fail in our responsiblity we allow children to die on the streets and then point the finger everywhere but at ourselves. Many women receive aid but still work because they work for employers like Walmart who by design pay them less so that they can receive benifits like food stamps and medical coverage. So who is exploiting the system? not the poor but the rich.

  • kurt.lorentzen

    Leonard Pitts is guilty of exactly what he accuses South Carolinians of doing. “They applaud because they understand he is saying … ‘Elect me and I will get these black people’s hands out of your pocket'”. From Pitt’s perspective, anything that has any linkage to blacks must be construed as racist even when, as Pitts himself points out, there is equally as much linkage to whites. That doesn’t mean Gingrich wasn’t playing to his crowd by deliberately taking advantage of how he anticipated they would interpret his words. But here’s some news: All politicians do that when campaigining, no matter who they are speaking to and no matter what they are speaking about. Like Pitts, I also worked at an early age for not much pay – in my dad’s plumbing shop for $2 a day when I was 11 or 12 years old. I believe opportunities and responsibilities like that, which came from my parents early on, were instrumental in establishing my own work ethic. My friends growing up all were from working-class families and as kids we were always looking for ways to earn money. Exposure to that kind of environment leads to that highly-praised ethic. If Gingrich meant his statement to be a racial slur, then shame on him. But if it’s just taken to be one by blacks and white bigots, that’s on them.

  • carolynbbaker

    It is really very simple. The GOP has NOTHING for Black People so in the upcoming election they will vote for Obama or they will not vote at all (which would be a pity). The GOP is counting on the millions of extreme – closet racists in this country to get them elected. White America is frightened by the advances of Black people and the wave of Hispanic people… signaling their loss of majority status in this country. The election is really ALL about race. White folks trying to reclaim their? country by electing heads of government who can be counted on to euthanize Blacks and Hispanics through poor health care, poverty, joblessness, loss of benefits ,,,jail….etc. What is ironic is that most white folks especially if they have less than 1 million in cash are the new N*****rs ,…dumb enough to march themselves straight to the ovens. Rehiring the same folks who stole their homes, jobs and money in the first place. I don’t get it but I don’t get morons anyway.

  • ToddN

    As Greg Gutfeld said “they can’t be “code words” if everyone already knows what they mean”. The fact that there are now 46 million Americans on food stamps, and there were 32 million when Obama took office is a fact, not racism. Both Obama and Nancy Pelosi have said that food stamps and unemployment checks boost the economy.
    Enough said.

  • Maricia12

    Wow, in a time when millions are unemployed with no jobs available, it would only be expected to have more people receiving foodstamps and other social programs. Most people do not want to ask for handouts but when it comes to feeding their families, the choice will always be to get help if available. The latest info states that more whites are on foodstamps than minorities. As far as racism coming from the Republican side, it cannot be anything else but racism. I am a retired white female living in a southern state with many northern retirees. I have been appalled at the things that are said about President Obama and the venom it is said with. I have never seen such hate spewed, in all my many years. As far as I can tell, President Obama has only tried to do what is best for Americans as a whole. Nothing else makes any sense with the way he is scorned, except racism. It is a hold over from the slavery days when blacks were considered no better than animals and certainly never better than whites. Try as we may, there are many who still hold on to that notion and of course it is politically incorrect to dare voice it publically. I have heard it voiced by many whites, sometimes blatantly and other times more subtly. Even more nasty remarks coming from the northern transplants. So please stop denying it does not exist, It does. Just because some of us do not have that kind of hate, it does not mean others do not. I have received tons of forwarded e-mails with some of the most vicious lies about the President and they keep coming. I try hard to fight back by checking these stories out at and other sites and then sending the info back to the sender but most do not want to know the truth. They want to continue to spread the hate and lies. Racism, you had better believe it. These people and they know who they are, need to stop saying ” we just don’t like his policies” because that just doesn’t fit the degree of hate being spread around. If this group believes in God as they profess, they will stand in judgement someday and will not be able to hide their true selves.

  • truthful310

    Some of you need to come out of your “fantasy worlds.” The president, nor Ms. Pelosi never said that foodstamps and unemployment boosts the economy. It’s just what you elect to believe. By the way Gingrich most certainly meant for his statement to be a racial slur, just that today he tries to do it in a covert manner. That “white ” audience reacted that way because they hold those views. No doubt, most of them were sitting in their churches on the following Sunday singing hymns, praying, and listening to sermons about the Love of God, but leaving the church with their same racist and destructive views. South Carolina has one of the highest poverty rates in the entire country, where is the connection for their conservatism when they have that dillema? By the way, to the individual who states that Mr. Pitts looks at the world through a “racial prism,” in the words of the Late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” “I guess it’s easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait.”

  • kurt.lorentzen

    carolynbbaker demonstrates one of the biggest problems this country, or at least this generation faces: “The GOP has NOTHING for Black People”. So Carolyn, please tell me what it is that black people want? Has it truly come to voting for the candidate that is offering the most stuff?