Straight Up Racism No Dogwhistle Necessary

James Fallows has some reader follow-ups to an earlier discussion of Newtie’s “food stamp president” quip. And they’ve made me rethink whether or not this is a real dogwhistle.

One of his readers says that it wasn’t racist in the least, that it was simply a dry, philosophical point about the virtues of hard work. This, of course, is nonsense. I quoted this yesterday, but it bears repeating since this is all taking place in South Carolina, the home of Lee Atwater, who famously said this:

Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he’s campaigned on since 1964 and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.

Questioner: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?

Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

This brings me to the Fallows reader who changed my mind on this. This South Carolinian claims that Newtie’s “food stamp president” isn’t a real dogwhistle at all (which implies something designed to fly under the radar.) He says this is just straight up racist, and I think that’s probably right.

If Newtie were saying this about a white president, it would indicate sympathy or pandering to African Americans, a standard slam against liberals. But the president himself is a black man, which changes the context considerably. After all, as Fallows points out he could have picked any number of ways to express the idea that he’s been bad for the economy: “foreclosure president”, “bailout president”, “pink-slip president”. Picking food-stamps goes directly to Atwater’s comments above, where the questioner even brings up food stamps as a way to appeal to the Wallace voter.

Atwater thought these racist appeals would be totally abstract by now, and for many people it is. But when you have a black president in a time of economic turmoil in which millions of people have lost their jobs, using phrases like “food stamp president” isn’t abstract at all.

Recall what Gingrich originally said:

More people are on food stamps today because of Obama’s policies than ever in history. I would like to be the best paycheck president in American history. Now, there’s no neighborhood I know of in America where if you went around and asked people, “Would you rather your children had food stamps or paychecks,” you wouldn’t [SIC] end up with a majority saying they’d rather have a paycheck.

And so I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps. And I’ll go to them and explain a brand new Social Security opportunity for young people, which should be particularly good for African-American males — because they’re the group that gets the smallest return on Social Security because they have the shortest life span.

Foodstamps = African American. No daylight there. He couldn’t have been more clear.

By Atwater’s standards, we’re going backwards.

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