Opinion: Time to call Republicans on playing the race card
Carolyn Edgar writes that white Republican candidates are playing the race card, too.
January 10th, 2012
12:00 PM ET

Opinion: Time to call Republicans on playing the race card

Editor’s note: Carolyn Edgar is a lawyer and writer in New York City. She writes about social issues, parenting and relationships on her blog, Carolyn Edgar.

By Carolyn Edgar, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Whenever a person – usually, a black person – raises the issue of race, that person is frequently accused of “playing the race card.” The whole notion of race as a trump card that black people use to unfair advantage is puzzling enough. But one of the lingering dichotomies of American politics is that black people who raise the topic of race are often accused of making racial reprimands to their advantage, while whites who do the same thing, are not.

Take, for example, the racial rhetoric that has once again resurfaced among Republican presidential candidates. Just before the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum told a group in Iowa that he “didn’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” Santorum later clarified – or rather, confused – his remarks by claiming he was misquoted, indicating he had said “blah” instead of “black.” Whether or not one finds Santorum’s explanation plausible, the “blah” people most often accused of by Republicans of living off of other people’s tax dollars are black and Hispanic.

Santorum may have backed off his remarks for fear of sounding openly prejudiced towards black people, but Newt Gingrich has no such compunction.

Gingrich has proposed that poor children train as apprentice janitors in schools, and defended the proposal while campaigning in Iowa, despite widespread criticism. Gingrich even brought in Donald Trump, friend to “the blacks,” to lend his “Apprentice” expertise to the cause. By claiming that "really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works," except in connection with crime, Gingrich made it clear his comments were not directed to poor people in rural communities. Later, Gingrich further clarified which poor children he was referring to by tying his apprentice idea to black teen unemployment statistics.

Recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show unemployment among Americans ages 16 to 19 overall at 23.1%, and at 42.3% for black teens. If high teen unemployment means kids are growing up without the work ethic that will enable them to be productive members of society as adults, it makes no sense to discuss teen unemployment as the inevitable result of black kids surrounded by idle adults on welfare. Moreover, although the black unemployment rate remains unreasonably high at 15.8% - nearly double the national average - it is clear that the majority of black Americans are not idle welfare recipients, and it is insulting to characterize them as such.

Gingrich has also jumped on the entitlement bandwagon. For weeks, Gingrich has referred to President Obama as a “food stamp president.” In New Hampshire, Gingrich took it one step further, calling Obama “the best food stamp president in American history.” The food stamp comment, of course, serves not only as a criticism of the President’s so-called “entitlement” policies, but also reminds the electorate that Obama’s single mother briefly raised the President on food stamps. Gingrich could have kept his criticisms race-neutral and focused his arguments on Obama’s policies. Instead, Gingrich told the New Hampshire crowd that he was willing to even go to the NAACP convention “and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

As is often pointed out, non-Hispanic whites comprise the majority of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or “food stamp,” recipients. If every single black recipient of food stamps were removed from the rolls, participation in the food stamp program overall would decrease by only one-third. Reducing overall participation in the food stamp program could be discussed without resort to racial politics, but somehow never is. Gingrich and Santorum’s criticism of only black recipients of public assistance qualifies as “playing the race card” to denigrate blacks.

Gingrich and Santorum aren’t the only Republicans who should be called out for playing the race card. Mitt Romney hasn’t talked about food stamps as openly as Gingrich and Santorum. However, in a recent USA Today op-ed, Romney wrote: “Over the past three years, Barack Obama has been replacing our merit-based society with an entitlement society.” Romney used softer language, but his words echo Gingrich’s “food stamp president” charge.

Ron Paul has tried to distance himself from the openly racist Ron Paul Newsletters that bear his name. One of those newsletters claims the L.A. riots ended only when rioters stopped to pick up their welfare checks, and opined that if the checks had never arrived, “the blacks would have fully privatized the welfare state through continued looting.” Even if one believes Paul’s claim that he had nothing to do with the writing of the newsletters, it’s worth remembering that Obama was castigated for the controversial statements made by his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, with no record of Obama having endorsed the statements. If linking Obama to his pastor’s words made sense, it makes just as much sense, if not more, to use the Ron Paul Newsletters which not only bear Paul’s name, but of which he once boasted, to examine Paul’s views on race and question whether he is qualified to govern a diverse electorate.

The only Republican to be accused of playing the race card is Herman Cain, the only black Republican candidate, who suspended his campaign amid various sex scandals. Cain caught flak for pointing out that the name of Rick Perry’s family hunting lodge – a name that contained a racial slur – was troubling. If Cain could be accused of playing the race card for pointing out the obvious, there’s no reason similar charges couldn’t be levied against the Republican Party strategy of using racial prejudice and fear to mobilize party faithfuls.

If invoking race, or pointing out a racial component of a social issue, is an odious practice, then it is equally offensive whether done by blacks or whites. If such a thing as the “race card” exists, then blacks and whites alike should be called out for dealing it. The better practice, of course, would be to do away with the term “race card” altogether – a term that stifles discussion and debate over race, in much the same way the term “political correctness” once did, and the way that labeling every racial reference as “racist” and “racism” still does.

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Robert

    Some cultures value education more than others. This is apparent if you look at the racial composition of most colleges across the country. You can say, "hey that's racist" or "some racial grouops have better access to good schools etc,,,." The bottom line is that some ethnic groups value what education can do, whether that means going to college or simply learning for the sake of being an educated person. Clearly, being satisfied with simply existing and not having the self-respect to educate yourself is the root of our problems. If a black or hispanic person looks around them and sees other racial groups living far better in terms of overall conditions, why don't they say to themselves "what do they have that I don't?" "My goodness, they actually have the discipline to study and grow." Why don't I follow in their footsteps and maybe I will create more opportunities for myself?" Sorry, of course they can't do this because they are mired in a ghetto with no prospects or opportunities, so of course they can't help themselves. This is the same reason that the Irish, Jews, Asians or Indians couldn't educate themselves. Oh, I'm sorry, they somehow managed to escape the poverty trap while living in similar or worse conditions, but that somehow is different. I must be stupid I guess.

    January 13, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
  2. robert

    To all Haters, not all Republicans are racist And not all Democrats are racist. This young woman is voicing her Opinion. We All have that right. But it is just her opinions. I do not believe that any of these candidates are truly racist, just as I believe our President is not racist. Sometimes people see what they want to see. Hear what they want to hear. They are called Haters, period. Most Americans are good people, hard working and understanding. It's that minority that aren't that cause all forms of racism....Guaranteed someone will read some form of racism in this also...

    January 12, 2012 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
  3. Joel Poindexter

    As for Ron Paul, you could have noted that he's the only candidate, GOP or otherwise, to address the inherently racist criminal "justice" system now in place. Not only does he recognize that minorities are convicted at much higher rates than demographics and crime statistics would justify, but he has a plan to rectify the injustice by pardoning all non-violent convicts now serving time in jail.

    January 12, 2012 at 10:27 am | Report abuse |
  4. Interested

    While the author used statistical and annecdotal evidence to support her claims, the reality is that a greater percentage of the black community receives government aid than the white community. When pointing out that the white families on SNAP outnumber black families, she is playing a game. One could say the same thing about unemployment. Yes, the unemployment rate for black teens is very high, but the number of unemployed white teens exceeds the number of unemployed black teens.

    The question is how do you provide the opportunity for ALL members of society to succeed? That is what the GOP is struggling with, not some attempt to play the race card. It IS better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish, and based on the comments here it would seem that most agree. At issue is how do you go about that? Do you make changes in aid programs to incentivize recipients to find gainful employment? (Why can't someone hold a minimum wage job AND collect certain benefits?) Do we finally do something about the horrid educational system in the US? If so, what do we do?

    The GOP isn't racist. Most conservatives truly believe that everyone should have the opportunity to succeed, that we all deserve a good educational system, that we all deserve to have the opportunity to succeed or fail on our own merits. You tell me, how do you phrase the message that the cycle of public assistance can only be broken by people demanding to be provided the opportunity to succeed? And then what do we do to help those who are unable to help themselves due to physical or mental impairment? An effective social safety net is a temporary mechanism for the majority of the population, but it has turned into a lifelong addiction in many families – of all races.

    January 12, 2012 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
  5. J-Fo

    From all of the places that I've lived, I've seen far more unemployed white people cheating the system and taking welfare when they just refuse to work than any other race. This is only an issue of race. Why not just put a stop to welfare fraud? If you're far too injured to work, you're far too injured to coach your son's baseball team or hunt on the weekends. White or black, Republican or Democrat... end the laziness.

    January 12, 2012 at 8:03 am | Report abuse |
  6. JJ

    Great article. My sediments exactly. The people running this country sound like a bunch of bickering children fighting over toys. I just wish more of the American public had the motivation to strip themselves away from the idiot box (TV) and get educated on some factual information, such as the true welfare statistics. The question i have is are people like Gingrich and Santorum uneducated? Or are they neglecting the true numbers to brainwash and get a rise out of people? Either reason would be a great enough offence to conclude that they aren't fit to be senators, never mind run the country.

    January 11, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
  7. AndyCandy

    Listen to yourself – justifying your own racism by saying the other guy did it first. What a ridiculous tirade against all of these candidates because they are white. Shame on you for being racist when the last thing we need is another person 'pulling the race card'.

    January 11, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Emperor Norton

      You don't seem to have actually read the article all the way through.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Russ

    Playing the race card shouldn't be confusing to her, what a stupid thing to say. And if you want to start pointing racist di gers, how about jesse jackson, al sharpton, donna brazile, chris rock...

    January 11, 2012 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
  9. Rob

    Call it what you might, if your eyes aren't seeing color by now you need to update your obsolete brain. The days of white vs black isn't the problem, ask the hispanics. If you could understand them they'd probably tell you both are loco(crazy). The problem is hidden down the road and ultimately resides with how well we continue to treat one another. We are all ultimately in ONE RACE. When we decide to help each other up, run together, and most importantly run in the same direction, we will all finish and prosper together. One day I hope we can stop racing, and just enjoy the people around us. I think we can all agree that there is nothing better in life than company we actually enjoy seeing. Love,Laugh,Live, and Smile because you were given the chance.

    January 10, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
  10. JP

    Will this ever end? Pitting each other in an "us versus them" society? Does anyone really benefit from hanging on each others every word to spat momentary rebuttals of raceism. I think that this social miscarrage is ingrained in all races...has been through out the worlds history and will continue long after our present generations have passed. The only solution I see is to focus on your direct community and interests and quit trying to save the world or our country as a whole. Allow smaller acheivements to ground swell as a neighborhood, community, region, state...ect. As a one time hospital worker they tell you in Trama situations...you cannot save everyone...and in racial situations..not everyone is willing to change, so flush those people and focus on the ones you can "save" Remember, if you want to eat an elephant ...don't look at it a whole impossible task....look at it as one bite at a time.....

    January 10, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Banks

    I'm troubled that in 2012, a Presidential candidate (in this case 3 so far) would still have these views about African Americans. The notion that we (Blacks) don't work hard enough or we just want a handout is simply sad. There is practically no place I can go to shop, eat, work, or play without seeing a hardworking African American (among many other races) making an honest dollar. So I'm curious as to who do these poeple work with? Do they not have Blacks and Hispanics on their staff that they respect before making these comments? It's clear that very few Blacks are represented in the upperclass but surely these candidates are not THAT disconnected with the middle class that they can only view Blacks as janitorial mentors? The GOP as an organization (in particular the younger generation) should be very ashamed of this representation.

    January 10, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Biotechdev

    How many times has Obams used the race card? How about Obama's "subterranean race element" opposing him? How about Eric Holder in the DOJ playing the race card when the real isse is that he sold guns to drug cartels that resulted in the death of an ATF officer? How about an article that talkes about how both sides have used the race card, why and if there is any truth to it

    January 10, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Samantha

    I wholeheartedly agree with this article. Very well-written and much needed!!

    January 10, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Briggs

    It is completely obvious that Ron Paul is not racist. This article is trying to further hatred and continue the racial divide that this country so desperately needs to abandon. People get educated and stop getting your information from CNN. The only reason I read this crap is so I know what their feeding the masses. Ron Paul for President!!!

    January 10, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  15. royal

    The GOP are the DEM's of the past who cares about these Confederate loving sympathizers cause guess what the South lost and it aint never gone rise back up! Can someone say President Obama it took a black man to get this Country back on track and kill Bin Laden. So pretty please elect a Republican can you say 9/11 all over again its over for the GOP no one in the World fears or respect them. Don't know their views are outdated.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Monise


    I agree with Didre. Very well-written and thought-provoking on this 'race card' foolishness. I can't and won't speak for other Black people, but nothing about my life is a game so I don't believe in playing the card. Glad to see an intelligent rebuttal to this GOP nonsense and close-minded 'logic' of theirs.

    January 10, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  17. Didre

    Well stated! I believe that those who would even believe Santorium's excue or lie,are the very ones who will be voting and that is quite sad. This presidential race against the President will be filled with racst depictions of the president and black people as welfre kings and queens, monkeys and all manner of evils inwhich the tea partiers can generate. These are godless people.

    January 10, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |