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Friday, December 2, 2016

Lord help us, they’re talking race again.

“They” meaning Republicans and Democrats. Race is a critical, sensitive and sometimes painful issue with relevance to everything from environmental policy to education reform to criminal justice to media to health care. For a politician to address it requires political courage.

That’s why politicians do not address it. Usually. That changes during political season when a given pol calculates that breaking his customary silence might net some tactical advantage.

Which is how we come to find Newt Gingrich last week on MSNBC piously lamenting how “racist” is the network’s Chris Matthews. The former House speaker displayed this previously unknown concern about racial misbehavior while defending himself against charges of same.

It seems Matthews had the temerity to suggest that Gingrich, in calling Barack Obama a “food stamp president” during the GOP primary, had engaged in dog whistle politics designed to rouse the racial resentments of white working-class voters. Gingrich was shocked — shocked! — at the notion.

“Why do you assume food stamp refers to black?” he asked. “What kind of racist thinking do you have?”

It is apparently news to Gingrich that politicians sometimes speak in code, that when, for instance, Ronald Reagan referenced his made-up “welfare queens” he was really promising white voters he’d make those lazy blacks get up off their behinds and work.

There was a study in the ’90s in which people had to envision a drug user, then describe the person they had envisioned. Ninety-five percent envisioned someone black .This, even though only about 15 percent of drug users actually are black. The point being that in the public mind, certain terms — “urban,” “poverty,” “crime” — carry racial weight, often at odds with reality. They are ways of saying “black” without saying “black.”