Newt Gingrich caught in race-baiting 'Catch-22'

OPINION - With thunderous applause in support of Newt Gingrich's continuing effort to connect poverty to stereotypes of African-Americans, the story of race-baiting in the 2012 election continues...

With thunderous applause in support of Newt Gingrich’s continuing effort to connect poverty to stereotypes of African-Americans, the story of race-baiting in the 2012 election continues.

An experienced politician and strategist who was Speaker of the House during the contentious period of welfare reform, he knows all too well where the racial landmines lie, making it obvious that he has been purposely stepping into them. This clear political strategy to gain a certain group of white voters always presents a Catch-22 for the black community and progressives.

On the one hand, we have to respond because it’s hard to let misinformation sit in the public sphere without correction. On the other hand, responding means playing into an on-going game that goes a little something like this — “Gingrich (and previously Santorum) uses stereotypes about poor black people”: to attract part of the conservative base, black people and liberals get up in arms, those initially attracted to the stereotypes are even more supportive of Gingrich because he made black people and progressives mad, and of course, somehow we all become distracted from the conversation of how any of the candidates would realistically solve the jobs and poverty problems.

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Beyond Gingrich, these attention-getting comments benefit his party. Since there is a certain segment of the party’s base that continues to believe stereotypes, having at least one candidate in the primary that speaks to their beliefs confirms that the party is still the place for them.

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Beyond Gingrich and the party, these comments benefit frontrunner Mitt Romney. He certainly appears to be a more reasonable candidate when standing next to Gingrich simply because his words are not as offensive — even as both candidates would pursue similar policies and outcomes. Critical points of commonality include their view to cut back on federal basic needs and poverty reduction services for questionable reasons while creating a tax structure that best benefits the wealthiest Americans.

It is certainly disappointing that in 2012 we are still talking about race-baiting and lingering stereotypes of African-Americans. And it’s also curious. To what extent will this still work? One would think that in this time of recovery from the worst recession this nation has seen in generations, it would be obvious that the conversation about poverty and struggling to enter and stay in the middle class is not solely about African-Americans.

After all, the majority of the people temporarily relying on food stamps and unemployment insurance to get them through bad times are white. And every population subgroup wants jobs — even black people (I’m talking to you Newt Gingrich). Also, there is the not so small fact that during the 2008 election such strategies did not prevent an overwhelming Obama victory.

Then again, both political elections and racial stereotypes have a history of defying logic. And no one knows how close any election will be and how important certain constituencies will be, including the true believers in these stereotypes and the tragically misinformed.

Thus, there is truly only one way forward — continuing to be vigilant against misinformation, helping to evolve American’s race conversation (especially as our nation grows more and more diverse), and trying and trying again to have real conversations on the actual issues as unaffected as possible by political strategies based on diversion and division.

Joy Moses is a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. Follow Joy on Twitter at @CAPAction.