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SPOTLIGHT
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The black and white of political code-speak

Published on -9/5/2012, 10:20 AM

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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."

The idea that Gingrich -- a 69-year-old career politician -- does not know this, or realize that "food stamp president" is such a term, strains credulity. If he's really that much of a naif, let us hope no one has told him the truth about the Tooth Fairy. It would break the poor man's heart.

Where race is concerned, Newt Gingrich is a disingenuous hypocrite. And Joe Biden is just a fool.

Did the vice president really tell a largely black audience two weeks back that if Mitt Romney is elected, the GOP will "put y'all back in chains." Y'all? Really? A slavery joke? Really?

Lord, have mercy.

Why didn't Biden just show up with his pants sagging while gnawing a chicken bone? It couldn't have been any less subtle.

There are, what, 14, 15 black Republicans in this country?

So Gingrich is offending voters his party does not have. But Biden is pandering -- clumsily -- to voters his party does have and routinely ignores until just before Election Day.

Black voters do not need to hear Biden say "y'all" any more than they needed, in 2006, to hear Hillary Clinton accuse the GOP of running a "plantation."

What they -- we -- need is for the left and right to stop using us like hardware. What we need is for would-be leaders to approach us with agendas tailored to our concerns.

Talk about how you're going to bring investment to the inner city. Talk about ending the mass incarceration of young black men under the failed war on drugs. Talk about job training. Talk about restoring the voting rights of ex-felons. Talk about fixing schools.

Do those things and you won't have to say y'all. But of course, that's too much to ask. So instead, we get Gingrich's dewy-eyed innocent act and Biden's linguistic blackface, the same old buck and wing of cynicism, opportunism and nonsense.

It turns out there's actually one thing more aggravating than politicians who don't talk about race. That's politicians who do.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist

for the Miami Herald.

lpitts@miamiherald.com

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