With Newt Gingrich's recent win in the South Carolina Republican primary, many are discussing the role family-focused evangelicals played in the victory of a candidate who has been married three times and has reportedly committed adultery. Evangelicals comprised two-thirds of primary voters, and Gingrich won 44% of their votes. At least 98% of these voters were white.
Gingrich ran an ad in South Carolina, the first Southern state to hold a primary this season, featuring his exchange with debate moderator Juan Williams. Williams had asked about Gingrich's repeated references to President Obama as the "food stamp president." Gingrich has also made disparaging statements about poor children, remarking they have no work ethic.
Critics call this type of rhetoric racially coded:
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues that the new racism entails individuals saying and doing things that perpetuate racial stereotypes and inequalities, but they do so in such a way that the offender is able to deny being explicitly racist. One of the many types of new racist strategies Bonilla-Silva highlights is the use of racially charged code speak, or using indirect racial rhetoric and semantic moves to express an ideology that serves to reinforce white dominance over minorities.
I wrote a paper last semester that explored racially-coded language in "family values" and welfare-reform discourse, much of which is perpetuated by another Republican presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum.
Santorum built his political career on promoting "family values" as the answer to social ills. To move people off welfare, government must encourage the formation of families headed by heterosexual married couples. Santorum authored the 1996 welfare reform act, which created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families ("TANF"), limited how long participants could rely on TANF, and capped funding. The act also restricted food stamp eligibility.
Many conservative politicians and talking heads use coded "family values" rhetoric to rail against black low-income families (especially mothers, i.e. Reagan's infamous "welfare queens") and rally the white voting troops.
Gingrich may owe his newfound success to dubbing Obama the food stamp president, as many white conservatives see the rise in welfare recipients as a moral failure and a threat to society. If we would "get back" to the work ethic and family values on which our country was founded, we would see less poor, inner-city (read: black) families rely on government aid.
In light of GOP presidential candidates' disturbing racist rhetoric, and especially given many evangelicals' response to this rhetoric, I will share parts of my paper over the next few weeks.
Much ink has been spilled recently over the African-American family (see Ralph Richard Banks' controversial book Is Marriage for White People?). But I do not dare speak to or at black U.S. Americans who earn lower incomes or who are not in a "traditional" two-parent family.
Rather, I'm interested in how the political discourse on family values and welfare has ugly undertones, often supported by white evangelicals. Fred Clark at Slacktivist pointed out that Richard Land, "ethics czar" of the Southern Baptist Convention, defended Gingrich, accusing the NAACP of being too sensitive. Land even uttered the phrase “off the liberal plantation and out of the liberal barrio.”
But aside from racially-coded language, the statistics, among all races, are intriguing. Over the last 50 years, the number of married adults in the U.S. decreased by 20%.1 Thirty-two percent of black adults are married, compared to 56% of whites. Birth statistics tell the same story: the number of births to unmarried women in the U.S. rose from 5% in 1960 to 41% in 2008. Among white mothers, 29% were unmarried in 2008, while 72% of black mothers and 53% of Hispanic-American mothers were single.
Conservatives are not exaggerating numbers to incite panic about crumbling "family values." But, using racially-coded language and blaming only people of color are too often hallmarks of some political and religious leaders' discourse. This is why I'm interested in pulling back the curtain on such rhetoric.