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The truth can come from an unlikely messenger. Like in Numbers 22:30, when God made a donkey talk to Balaam, a prophet who had veered far from God’s purpose.
Newt Gingrich has been an unexpected source of truth during the campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, which is why I hope he stays in the race and keeps talking. Gingrich’s comments have been eye opening, like when he called Congressman Paul Ryan’s economic plan “right-wing social engineering,” and then was forced to backtrack. He’s arrogant, impulsive, and morally flawed, but also smart and shrewd. Gingrich often veers from the typical political talking points and says what he truly believes. He expresses volatile thoughts that many people hold and act on privately, but won’t say publicly. Gingrich’s fellow GOP candidate Rep. Ron Paul has a similar proclivity to say what he thinks without filters. The other night, for instance, Paul was once again trying to deflect criticism about his racist newsletter from 20 years ago when he spoke about the unfairness of the criminal justice toward blacks — not exactly a topic you’ll find many Republican politicians addressing, especially one who’s running for president. Unfortunately, none of the reporters followed up with a question about what Paul has been doing about those racial disparities as a congressman or what he would do as president.
Suffice it to say, without Gingrich and Paul in the race, the political dialogue would be far less lively and informative.
Gingrich’s latest episode of unexpurgated candor is especially worth noting. The former Speaker of the House, who has a history of wandering into politically incorrect territory regarding race in America, riled the blogsphere and pundits recently with a comment about blacks and food stamps. Gingrich often refers to President Obama as the “food stamp president” because Americans are receiving the aid at the highest levels in history. The reference is also Gingrich’s way of reminding white voters that Obama is black.
During a speech to a majority-white audience prior to the New Hampshire Primary, Gingrich said:
“And so I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention to talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”
“Insensitive,” “race baiter,” and “bigot,” were among the predictable names critics called him. The NAACP issued its standard condemning response, with the group’s president Benjamin Todd Jealous calling the remarks “inaccurate and divisive.” But perhaps Gingrich has actually done us a favor.
While clearly provocative, Gingrich’s food stamp flap unexpectedly caused the news media to focus on and dispel a longstanding racial stereotype that blacks are the main beneficiaries of food stamp handouts — a stereotype the media perpetuates. The truth is that the face of food stamps and poverty in America is white.
Gingrich triggered CBS and some other news outlets to report that whites represent 59 percent of the households on food stamps, while blacks are 28 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Previous published reports indicated that poverty is on the rise among whites, increasing 53 percent in the majority white suburbs compared to 23 percent in the cities. Two-thirds of the new suburban poor were added between 2007 (the year the economy tanked under the Bush administration) and 2010.
It would seem that poverty is something the majority-white Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements could unite over, along with the civil rights and faith communities. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a race-neutral Poor People’s Campaign and was also speaking out against the Vietnam War when he was assassinated in 1968. King understood what really mattered. His eyes were opened. However, savvy politicians also know they can rely on racism and class to divide voters and advance their own agendas.
The food stamp story also unveiled how the major news organizations often contribute to keeping Americans in the dark. Many of us probably don’t realize that reporter David Weigel of Slate.com, who attended the Gingrich speech and was reportedly the first to tweet the comment, may have done so because he is anti-Republican. Media columnist Richard Prince reminded readers that Weigel resigned from the Washington Post in 2010 from his gig blogging about conservatives after it was revealed that he had disparaged Republicans in a deeply personal way on a listserv. The Post owns the liberal-leaning Slate.com. In his blog, Weigel posted the Gingrich comment without providing proper context, then feigned surprise that others did the same. I suspect Weigel knows, as most bloggers do, that the volatile mix of race and politics often generates lots of reader page views and retweets on the Web — especially if the talker is a polarizer like Gingrich.
As Numbers 22:30 teaches, the messenger might be an ass (or even an elephant), but we ought to pay attention. There’s truth between the lines.