The NAACP’s “Gotcha!” Games

Somewhere there must be advocates for the African-American community who realize that the practice of lying in wait for white politicians to make a mis-phrased or politically incorrect statement and then pouncing on them with indignant press releases charging racial insensitivity is counter-productive, feeding mistrust on all sides and tempting many on the political right to just by-pass issues of concern to blacks as a lost cause with a hopelessly biased audience. Somewhere—but not in the NAACP, which has relied for decades on playing “gotcha!” games to flex its PR muscles and appeal to its most racially polarized core. I remember poor Ross Perot speaking to the group in 1988, and being pilloried for referring to an his all-black audience once as “you people.” Of course, Perot was appearing with the expectation that he would explain what a Perot presidency would do to address the problems of African-Americans, a group he was not a member of,  yet the completely self-explanatory and accurate, if clumsy, “you people” was attacked as patronizing and vaguely racist.

Now GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum is under fire by the NAACP for this statement: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” The claim: Santorum thinks that all poor people are black, or that all black people are poor. Of course, he could also just be making the same point black politicians have been making regularly lately and accusing white politicians of ignoring: the recession is hurting African-Americans worse than it is hurting whites (their unemployment rate is twice as high), and they are in need of special attention. The black household poverty rate is also twice that of whites.  So when a black politician chides white lawmakers for not addressing this disparity, it’s activism. When a white Republican focuses on the same demographic by name, he’s attacked for it.

This is unfair, and it is also irresponsible.

Now Santorum and his black critics are arguing over what he “meant” to say, with Santorum explaining that there was no offense in either his intent or what he was trying to say, that he just muddled his words. Maybe he should just say,

“You know what? There’s just no pleasing you people. If Al Sharpton or Bill Clinton made the same statement I did, you wouldn’t bat an eye. If I had made a color-neutral statement, someone would have said that I obviously didn’t care about the black community, or pointed out how few African-Americans were in the audience.( And if Barack Obama said the same thing, Glenn Beck would have said that it proved that he was a racist who didn’t care about poor whites. But I digress.) The hell with it: you think it’s more important to intimidate white conservative politicians by looking for excuses to call us racists at every turn than to accord us the same assumptions of good faith and good motives that we are supposed to grant you. No wonder there is distrust. No wonder President Bush repeatedly turned down invitations to speak to the NAACP. You’d rather play “gotcha!” than build alliances, seed more racial suspicion than try to make progress, and presume prejudice rather than give the benefit of the doubt.”

But of course, he’d better not say “you people,” or he’ll really be in trouble.

18 thoughts on “The NAACP’s “Gotcha!” Games

  1. Your commentary leads me to believe that you know little about race, race speak, or coded language. Not to mention, your (and Santorum’s) obvious misunderstanding of welfare, whose on welfare, and the role it actually plays in peoples lives. Black people have never been the largest percentage of people on welfare. Welfare was never supposed to be permanent, and has never “made the lives of blacks better by giving them someone else’s money. Welfare has has routinely been attacked where blacks are concerned, but not nearly when rural whites are the subject. The single largest percentage of people on welfare are single unwed mothers under the age of 21. Go look it up. Given the facts about welfare and black people, perhaps you can understand how pissed people get when someone like Santorum shoots his mouth off irresponsibly, and not fact based. But guess if one is a looking for conservative votes, this type of speech might help get a few extra ones….

    • I understand Welfare very well indeed, and of course nothing that either I wrote or that Santorum said remotely justifies your response. The statement by Santorum does not suggest that a majority of food stamp or Welfare recipients are black. It suggests that there are black recipients of public assistance, which there are, and he chose to talk about them specifically, rather than about, say, Asian recipients. As I wrote—and your comment suggests that you either didn’t read the post through or didn’t comprehend it—the percentage of poor and unemployed in the black community is twice what it is in the white community, making special focus there reasonable and responsible, not bigoted. The NAACP, or you, will interpret such statements to be denigrating because of a bias against Santorum and conservatives generally, which the rest of your comment eloquently proves. “Code” is a convenient euphemism for “gotcha!” or “I can claim you were talking racist code whenever I want to, regardless of what you actually say.” Oddly, when Joe Biden said that Barack Obama was “clean,” that wasn’t treated as code by the NAACP, although it had been the standard condescending language of bigots for over a hundred years. Why? Because Biden’s a liberal, a Democrat, a presumed idiot, and an NAACP ally—so he gets a pass for something far more offensive than anything Santorum has said in his public life.

      This isn’t just a double-standard, this is a standing trap for the NAACP to perceive offense literally whenever it wants to, and to fan race-hatred in the process. It’s good to hear directly from a practitioner—thanks! Just know that you and people like you impede racial harmony and frank policy discussions through theses tactics. Presumably that’s what you want.

  2. Actually Biden was called out for making the “Clean” comment, and as you must clearly understand by mentioning it, it was not a good thing. My problem with Santorum’s comments and your response and as I stated earlier, is that by making black people the focus of “welfare” comments and discussion, and you must admit this is true, you’re not focusing on welfare as a problem. The focus is on black folks. This is not fair given the statistics of who is actually on welfare. This also is not nuanced, but clear. The conservative movements association and link between welfare and blacks would only be honest, and in my opinion not racist, if they spent “some” (though I’d prefer equal) time dealing with the realities and true problems of those on welfare. Or, they could look at and discuss welfare from another groups perspective. For instance, what type of meaningful job do you expect single unwed, untrained mothers to do? Welfare to work is clearly more impactful with job training and child care. That is a realistic approach to moving the actual majority of people on welfare rolls off of them for good. Can you actually tell me that this sort of fact based discussion is not more productive than general statements about the plight of blacks? And then conservatives wonder why blacks don’t vote for them in large numbers. I’m glad we have some black republicans. I simply choose not to be among them. And being black hardly makes me a practitioner. Though my lawyer mother was, and used welfare as a way to take care of her kids while going to school, thus enabling her to pay more in taxes than she ever took out of the system. But you clearly don’t want to have that sort of discussion.

    • Roger: Biden was given some grief about the comment, mostly from conservative writers tweaking the liberal press for giving him a pass.

      Your criticism loads a whole Monday morning quarterback argument onto one single (simple, facile, hardly revolutionary) statement that was not essentially about race at all, but a single example about the superiority of helping citizens be self-sufficient rather than just distributing dole. The statement wasn’t specific to blacks, unless someone wants to interpret a statement to be as moronic as possible when a rational interpretation is available.. Obviously the same as Santorum’s example applies to anyone without a job and resources. Attacking someone on the basis of what he DIDN’T say, as if saying something else precludes the whole panoply of other ideas and issues, is just plain dirty pool—I encounter it a lot myself. If your argument is that Santorum’s comment doesn’t properly explore the nuances of poverty and its possible policy remedies, sure it doesn’t, and its unfair to hold him to that standard. If the complaint is over the using of blacks as the stand-in group for the unemployed and poor generally, OK, but black activists do the same thing, and regularly, for their own political purposes.

      A legitimate complaint would be that Santorum’s nostrums, and conservative cant on the issue, are inadequate, lazy and facile. That point’s worth making. Accusing him of racism is not only unfair and unproductive, it’s lazy too.

  3. So let’s see if I can be a little clearer here. 1. If Santorums comments were not about race, then they must have been about welfare. Assuming this is correct (and I doubt it) it was about welfare. if the comment was about welfare, then he should have spoken in more general terms as opposed to as you say lazily identifying black people which in that context (remember he also mentioned money in the statement) deal with that. The fact is that some blacks are on welfare. This is hardly new news, and I challenge you to find statements by Santorum dealing with welfare where he does not mention blacks. 2. Of course his statement could be applied to other groups that are on welfare. But he chose to identify one. 3. Talk about reading into things. His statement failed to deal with anything relative to helping people versus distributing dole. He spoke of not wanting to give blacks other people’s money. I wonder whose money he was referring to? His comment seems to reveal a thought that only those others than blacks contribute tax dollars to be doled out. (I know, there I go again!) 4. I’m not attacking him or you for that matter. I’m factually asking you to reexamine his thoughts and statements from another perspective. This is something I’m forced to do every day simply to survive as a minority in this country. Additionally, Santorum is little more that the latest conservative speed date. We all know the nominee will be Romney. My only reason for weighing in at all was an attempt to focus on how blacks are so routinely and falsely tied to the ills of the welfare state. 5. Blacks doing the same thing? No. Blacks sight statistics and examples in an attempt to highlight the effects certain policies and beliefs have on the race as a whole. They do so in an attempt to help their people. Blacks are also generally more conservative than most on issues such as abortion and same sex marriage. Lastly, not all blacks are experts on race, race issues, and their causes. But all blacks have been the victim of racism at numerous points in their life. This gives us a credibility and perspective that you and the majority of whites will simply never have. But instead of actually listening to those who know, we’re accused of “playing the race card”. As if this is a damn game of chance! It’s personal, it’s sensitive, and we must live it daily. I still choose to live here and want to. And by the way, I have a lot of white friends. Do you see the irony or get the joke? I hope you do…..

    • Why wouldn’t you have a lot of white friends? You seem like a nice guy to me.

      Roger, I don’t see how blacks in America can avoid being beset by strong confirmation bias at every turn. I understand that. I also understand that experiences that may happen to me and obviously not be evidence of racial bias could happen to you for the exact same reasons they happened to me, and you would be inclined to see them as racial bias nonetheless. I wouldn’t be surprised if Santorum were in fact a bigot—he’s an anti-gay bigot, so he clearly is capable of bigotry.That specific statement of his, however, proves nothing, and it just cheapens the issue of race bias when the NAACP calls foul without due provocation.
      Here’s the statement again:
      “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” “Somebody’s else’s money” is race-neutral…it means, literally, somebody’s tax money, presuming that the poor person under discussion didn’t have to pay taxes. It’s Herman Cain’s money and Barry Bonds’s money and your money,as well as my money. Where and how does Santorum suggest otherwise? He’s talking about income redistribution—I don’t think he’s even so specific as to be discussing welfare. He’s talking about equalizing opportunity to be self-sufficient as preferable to public assistance. I don’t deny that it was sloppy to use blacks as his focus, but how does that denigrate blacks? Who is going to be deceived by the statement? Does anyone in the US think that only blacks are poor? Do you really think Santorum thinks that? You don’t and I don’t.

      Wouldn’t it be much better for the NAACP to issue a statement noting that It’s important to remember that African Americans do not make up the bulk of Americans on public assistance, and to the extent Santorum’s comments suggested that, they were misleading. Whereupon he would have issued a statement that this was not what he intended to convey, and that of course poverty and unemployment was a problem in America across all demographic groups, but that blacks were being hit especially hard, and he was omitted to improving job prospects for blacks, especially black youths, whose unemployment levels are at a disastrous 15%. Wouldn’t that have been productive? Non adversarial? Instead, Ben Jealous comes out and blasts away. Not helpful and not fair—which is what I wrote.

  4. Well, he sure wasn’t going to say “you people,” meaning blacks, in a room full of white people, was he? (I think both African-American Iowa Republicans had other plans that night.)

    If in fact he actually said, or intended to say, “black people” (he now claims he stumbled over his words), it was certainly playing to racial fears and prejudices: black people get somebody else’s (i.e., white people’s) money. Singling out blacks as welfare recipients when the context doesn’t demand attention to a particular race is politically clumsy at best and overtly racist at worst. Having lived in Iowa, about a half-hour’s drive from a regional headquarters of the KKK, I think there would be at least some people in that audience receptive to, yes, “code.”

    If he stumbled over his words, well, that happens… although the word he stumbled over started with “bla…” My guess: the ethics alarm went off about a half-second too late, and then he started acting like a politician who had come perilously close to sounding like Newt Gingrich. But I don’t know that. This episode strikes me as neither completely innocent nor worthy of much in the way of gnashed teeth or rent garments. I’d give it a raised eyebrow. My students tell me I’m good at them.

  5. My $.02: the NAACP’s and Roger’s objections to what Santorum said are valid “gotchas.”

    It matters neither what Santorum really meant, nor what is the sum of Santorum’s character and values (call that his “heart”). What he uttered (“blacks”), insofar as how it matters to certain recipients, is off-putting and alarming, regardless of its timing, place, vehemence, or other quality, and therefore must matter to all recipients. It was worse than “lazy;” it betrayed a lack of sensitivity that others have (and are justified and deserving in having) about a matter of justice. It only takes one word – even part of one word; even no words at all but some other fleeting sound or sight, like a raised eyebrow – for one to make oneself clear, even clearer than ever had been intended, or than ever could be communicated with many words.

    Santorum revealed himself, and did himself in, with one word. One. Word. Santorum did address a valid point, despite what he said. Roger addressed a valid point too, despite writing, “But all blacks have been the victim of racism at numerous points in their life. This gives us a credibility and perspective that you and the majority of whites will simply never have.” My sensitivity causes me to judge that “part of Roger” as all fine and fair – up to “that.” The words following “that” caused me to react by remembering words penned by famous racist Mark Twain (to wit, in essence): “Everybody’s ignorant, just on different subjects.”

    But, since similarly ethical persons can be so unbelievably, exasperatingly dissimilar in perceptiveness and sensitivities, the last 10 words of Roger’s written sentence completion don’t bother me nearly as much as Santorum’s utterance of one word – and still wouldn’t bother me as much, even if Roger was seeking election to the White House. That isn’t a double standard, or nitpicking, or paranoia, or what I often call pathological pettiness, such as the insensitive presumptousness and arrogance that persists in discussions of “code” in “race card” contexts. I think Roger sees alarming wiggle room for perpetuated prejudice that can be, and is, accommodated in dismissals referring to “playing the race card” – while others, in the same incidents where it appears that “the race card is being played,” see alarming wiggle room for other nonprogressive, bullying behavior and tyranny. I don’t want to sound too Darwinian, but in my lifetime, it seems that one continuing “struggle” in the U.S.A., culturally and politically speaking, has stemmed from “natural selection” of sensitivities (never mind sensibilities). With overall populations continuing to grow, I am not optimistic for stability stemming anytime soon from selection.

    I respect the NAACP and Roger for stepping up to be what I’ll call curmudgeons of culture, along the lines of the meaning of curmudgeon suggested here: (More on Jon Winokur here: ) The NAACP and Roger, as they exemplify in this Santorum case, are vital, constructive observers, critics, advocates and activists who are serving all of us well by sustaining awareness of, and appreciation for, sensitivities “that others may simply never have.”

    To conclude, I reiterate what I said often in high school: I hate people who don’t love each other.

  6. Santorum was speaking to “The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” for heaven’s sake. If judging simply from that title, I would assume that the primary goal of that organization is “the advancement of colored people.” In other words, their aim is the make the lives of black people better, is it not? Santorum said, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” He stated the way in which he would and wouldn’t approach the advancement of the organization’s prime directive, and he stated it with the same specificity that the organization uses in its very name, except for that slight alteration. Imagine the hubbub if he had said “colored” instead of “black.”

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