PART 3—PROFESSOR GATES, SNARLING RACIST: In our view, Newt Gingrich is one of the least constructive politicians of the last several decades.
As a general matter, it isn’t a good idea to speculate about the mental health of public figures. But Jacob Weisberg recently wondered about Newt’s mental health—and it ain’t hard to see why.
Newt has said a lot of deeply unfortunate things through the years. He has said a lot of things which are amazingly ugly. Beyond that, he has said a lot of things which are dumb; some of his recent comments about “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods” might fit in that category. But much of what Newt recently said is, in fact, a very familiar old story—a familiar portrait of the plight confronting many of our country’s really poor children.
It was a very familiar old story—until Newt Gingrich told it. At that point, for unknown reasons, the familiar old tale became false.
Gingrich has been a horrible public figure—an apostle of tribal hatred. But then, we liberals behaved in similar ways when he made his recent remarks about the plight of really poor children—the kinds of children the liberal world rarely deigns to discuss.
Consider something Professor Gates said just a few years ago.
Professor Gates is of course Henry Louis Gates, a pillar of several communities. Back in 2004, he published “America Behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans.” Inevitably, the book was accompanied by a four-part PBS documentary. And PBS is very high-minded, as all good liberals know.
Gates appeared on “Democracy Now” to discuss the project; the program is a pillar of the progressive community. He spoke with Amy Goodman, also a pillar. And uh-oh:
At one point, Gates described the plight of many really poor children in really poor neighborhoods. And omigod! When he did, he sounded a bit like Gingrich:
GATES (1/8/04): Precisely because of the success of affirmative action, our community has been fragmented. What do I mean by that? One of the most eloquent people I interviewed [for the book] was a prisoner in the Cook County jail. He called himself Eric, but he has another name. He said that when he was growing up, he did not see, when he was on his way to school, which he never made it to, he didn’t see, he says, a fireman going to work. He didn’t see a policeman going to work. He saw drug dealers. He saw people fighting and gangs.Can Skip Gatessay these things? Citing William Julius Wilson, Gates described a very familiar landscape—the same social landscape Gingrich described when he made his Dickensian comments. “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods” often lack certain types of role models, Professor Gates said. He said the situation has gotten worse since the black middle class was freed to move to suburban communities.
Under segregation, curiously enough, we were all forced to live together. You might have a janitor living in this house, and a factory worker in this house, and next door would be an undertaker and next door would be a doctor and across the street would be a lawyer, and of course, everyone was surrounded by the teachers in the local school. The middle class had moved to the suburbs, or to other middle class communities, leaving behind what William Julius Wilson calls the underclass. So we are fragmented in a way that we have never been before, and that’s the tragic outcome of the civil rights movement and affirmative action.
Surely, everyone has heard this story a million times by now. Surely, everyone has heard it said that many of our really poor children have no role models in their really poor neighborhoods—except the neighborhood’s drug dealers. Indeed, you don’t have to turn to an egghead like Gates to hear this amazingly common description. You could listen to Jay-Z, interviewed by Oprah:
WINFREY (10/09): Were the rappers in your neighborhood your role models?Jay-Z’s mother “worked two jobs and did whatever she had to do for us.” But many really poor kids in really poor neighborhoods don’t have such a parent—or at least, that’s what Charles Blow wrote in the New York Times.
JAY-Z: The drug dealers were my role models. Rappers weren't successful yet.
WINFREY: So tell me how you got into the drug dealing.
JAY-Z: It was natural—
WINFREY: Because drug dealers were your role models. There wasn’t a teacher or lawyer or nurse of doctor or an accountant in the neighborhood?
JAY-Z: Well, we were living in Marcy [Park] by then, so no. And if anyone did become something like that, they moved out. They never came back to share the wisdom of how they made it. If anyone made it, you never knew it. That’s why I’ve always said that if I become successful, I’d come back here, grab somebody, and show him how it can be done.
WINFREY: So you didn't have even one positive black role model?
JAY-Z: Just my mom. She worked two jobs and did whatever she had to do for us.
WINFREY: Did you aspire to be a drug dealer?
JAY-Z: Well, no. No one aspires to be a drug dealer. You don't want to bring trouble to your mother's door, even though that's what you're doing. You aspire to the lifestyle you see around you. You see the green BMW, the prettiest car you've ever seen. You see the trappings of drug dealing, and it draws you in.
WINFREY: How old were you when you got involved?
JAY-Z: Maybe 13.
WINFREY: Did you realize it could cost you your life?
JAY-Z: In my mind, that wasn't risking a lot. You think, "If I'm living like this, I'll risk anything to get more. What's the worst that could happen?”
As you may recall, Blow presented data which showed that roughly two-thirds of really poor children in really poor neighborhoods don't live with a working parent (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/8/11). And yet, for some unknown reason, Blow seemed to think that his data contradicted the vile things Gingrich had said. At the always hapless Times, Blow’s column still appears beneath this puzzling synopsis:
Newt’s War on Poor ChildrenBlow saw the glass one-third full! And please note: Blow was specifically challenging Gingrich’s claims about the lack of working role models for many “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods.” In presenting these data, he wasn’t challenging Newt’s idea that such really poor children should be given opportunities to work. He was saying that really poor children do have “working parents as role models.”
Gingrich says poor children do not have working parents as role models. He couldn’t be more wrong.
Gingrich couldn’t be more wrong about this point, the Times synopsis still says. But Blow’s data said Gingrich was right; so did Gates and Jay-Z. So what explains the storm of reaction to Gingrich’s basic thesis?
The notion that really poor children may lack role models who work is so familiar that it might even qualify as shopworn. Over the years, we’ve heard high academics like Gates describe this social landscape; we’ve heard revered public figures like Colin Powell, who leads one of many programs to provide mentors to such young people. But the story is very familiar within the world of pop culture too; it has animated endless discussions involving well-known figures like Jay-Z and Oprah. And yet, when Gingrich told this familiar old story, the liberal world rose up in fury, insisting he had to be wrong. “Has he never heard of the working poor?” So our dumbest tribal players complained—everyone from Maureen Dowd on down.
“Has he not heard of the working poor?” this ultimate flyweight wrote in the Times. That said, Maureen Dowd is hapless—and she doesn’t care.
Presumably, Gingrich has heard of the working poor—but in this instance, he was talking about the non-working poor, just like Gates and Oprah before him. Normally, we pseudo-liberals like to complain about the way Bush cost so many such people their jobs. But when Gingrich spoke, we thundered as if people in really poor neighborhoods are currently burdened by too many jobs! On NPR’s Tell Me More, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar heroically called in the thunder:
IFTIKHAR (12/9/11): You know, based on his statements that, you know, kids today, you know, have no work habits and quote, "nobody around them works," I'd like him to go to downtown Detroit or the South Side of Chicago at 4:45 in the morning on a work day and try to get on a city bus. And, you know, look at the people who are working three to four jobs, single-parent households, you know, trying to keep their families afloat, pay the rent and get the groceries.There! That felt good! Suddenly, poor people all have three or four jobs, despite the giant rates of unemployment within the black community. And needless to say, Gingrich was a snarling racist—presumably unlike Gates and Oprah, who had said the same things when jobs were easier to get. Once again, please note a basic point:
I mean this was—to me, it was the most patronizing statement from his lily white ivory tower that Newt Gingrich could have ever given.
Gingrich’s idea that really poor children should work wasn’t at issue in these remarks. Like Blow, Iftikhar was rejecting the notion that really poor children in really poor neighborhoods often lack working role models. That is ridiculous, Iftikhar said—just like Dowd before him.
Should really poor children work? Tomorrow, we’ll look at Michele Martin’s contrarian reaction, expressed on that same NPR program, of which she is the host. But for today, let’s ask a few basic questions: Why did Gates’ amazingly familiar description suddenly become so racist and wrong when it fell from Gingrich’s mouth? And why do none of these thundering people ever discuss those NAEP TUDA scores?
Uh-oh! In the same week when Blow and them thundered so hard, the NAEP released its new TUDA scores. Predictably, the liberal world couldn’t have cared any less. We didn’t discuss what those new data seem to show—except for Matt Yglesias at Slate, who discussed the data extremely poorly, much as a third-grader would have. It’s hard to avoid a basic thought: We liberals don’t give a flying fig about really poor children in really poor neighborhoods. If we did, we might discuss their interests once in a while.
For ourselves, we find this conduct repellent, disgusting. Your results may differ, of course. After all, they’re just black kids.
Who gives a fig about them?
Tomorrow: Martin on janitorial jobs—and Gates on two Americas