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Ahead of South Carolina Primary, GOP Candidates Employ Race-Baiting Tradition to Win Southern Vote

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Leading up to the South Carolina primary, several Republican presidential candidates have been criticized for comments made over issues of race. This week Newt Gingrich defended his description of President Obama as “the food stamp president,” while offering praise for President Andrew Jackson, the architect of the Indian Removal Act. We speak to South Carolina civil rights activist Kevin Alexander Gray and longtime political reporter Wayne Slater about how Republicans have adopted the long-held “Southern strategy” of race baiting in order to win over bigoted white voters. “Democrats come here to get their black ticket punched. Republicans come here to punch black people,” Gray says. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Kevin Alexander Gray into this conversation. Kevin, you and your younger sister, Valerie, were among the first African Americans to attend an all-white elementary school in 1968 in South Carolina. Let’s step back. Give us the lay of the land of your state, South Carolina. And where do the Republican presidential candidates fit in to this? What are they appealing to? Who are they appealing to in South Carolina?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, obviously, most people know of South Carolina’s racial history. They know about South Carolina being the state that started the Civil War, that takes great pride in its Confederate heritage. One out of two streets in South Carolina is probably named after a Confederate hero. We still have the Confederate flag flying on the statehouse grounds. And the statehouse grounds, there’s a monument to Confederate heroes.

That being said, we come forward to Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrat party, to the Southern strategy with Richard Nixon, which was led by Harry Dent from South Carolina, who was head of RNC, to Lee Atwater, who worked George—the first George Bush and developed racial politics in the Southern strategy even further. So we’re used to this idea of race politics and ethnic politics being played in this state. Ethnic politics were even played against the current governor by both parties. And even when the Democrats come here, Democrats come here to get their black ticket punched. Republicans come here to punch black people. We knew that, saw that coming with the comments that Santorum made about black people in Iowa. We see that with the comments that Newt Gingrich makes about President Obama being “the food stamp president.” Although unemployment in the black community has risen under Obama, there’s not a likelihood that black voters are going to vote for Newt Gingrich. So, it’s—obviously, this idea of Obama being “the food stamp president” and Santorum talking about black people’s moralities in an oblique kind of way, everybody is used to that. And Democrats and Republicans play that. That’s the nature of this state, that we call it, not to be indelicate, “kick-a-nigger politics.”

And, of course, it’s going to arouse a certain segment of the Republican Party behind Newt Gingrich. I think Newt Gingrich is the beneficiary of Perry dropping out, and it pretty much coalesces that whole idea of the Southern nativism and the Southern strategy that we’ve become accustomed to in American politics and Southern politics.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re in Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is where the 17th Republican presidential debate took place last night, with one fewer candidate, because Rick Perry, the Texas governor, has dropped out, throwing his support to Newt Gingrich, who’s surging in the polls in South Carolina ahead of—ahead of Romney, who also yesterday suffered a major defeat in the recount of the Iowa caucus vote with the announcement that, in fact, it was Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, who had won. This is Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. Back with Wayne Slater and Kevin Alexander Gray in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: President Obama, first sitting president at the historically black Harlem Apollo Theater last night, sang a refrain from Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” as Occupy protesters were outside the theater. Well, this is Democracy Now!,, as we continue to talk more about race and the South Carolina primary. Earlier this week, former President Jimmy Carter accused Newt Gingrich of using racist language to appeal to Republican voters in South Carolina. Carter made the comment in an interview on CNN.

JIMMY CARTER: Now, Gingrich, in the South Carolina debate—I watched part of it, watched the first half of it. I think he has that subtlety of racism that I know quite well and that—


JIMMY CARTER: Gingrich knows quite well, that appeals to some people in Georgia, particularly the right wing.

PIERS MORGAN: And you think he’s doing it deliberately?

JIMMY CARTER: Oh, I think so. He knows, as well, the words that you use, like “welfare mamas” and so forth, that have been appealing in the past in those days when we cherished segregation of the races. So he’s appealing for that in South Carolina, and I don’t think it will pay off in the long run.

AMY GOODMAN: Former President Jimmy Carter specifically referring to this exchange at Monday night’s debate between Fox News moderator Juan Williams and Newt Gingrich.

JUAN WILLIAMS: You recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also said poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?

NEWT GINGRICH: No, I don’t see that. What I tried to say—and I think it’s fascinating, because Joe Klein reminded me that this started with an article he wrote 20 years ago. New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket. They would learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. They could work in the cafeteria. They could work in the front office. They could work in the library. They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.

JUAN WILLIAMS: But Governor—Speaker Gingrich, the suggestion that you made was about a lack of work ethic. And I’ve got to tell you, my email account, my Twitter account, has been inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities. You saw some of this reaction during your visit to a black church in South Carolina. You saw some of this during your visit to a black church in South Carolina, where a woman asked you why you refer to President Obama as “the food stamp president”? It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people.

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, first of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. Now, I know among the politically correct you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.

AMY GOODMAN: Following Monday’s debate, Newt Gingrich’s campaign took excerpts from that exchange and highlighted them in a new TV commercial.

NEWT GINGRICH CAMPAIGN AD: Only Newt Gingrich can beat Obama.

NEWT GINGRICH: More people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness, and if that makes liberals unhappy, I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn someday to own the job.

I’m Newt Gingrich, and I approve this message.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That’s an excerpt from an ad from Newt Gingrich’s campaign. We continue with Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News, joining us from Charleston, South Carolina, and Kevin Alexander Gray, civil rights activist and community organizer in Columbia, South Carolina. Kevin Alexander Gray, your response to some of these clips that we’ve been playing?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: You know, I saw the ad. I see the ad every time I turn on my TV almost. I saw the—both debates. Both of them were probably one flaming cross short of being a Klan rally. The fact that Newt Gingrich would also talk about Andrew Jackson knowing how to deal with his enemy, and Andrew Jackson was known as “the extermination president” for all the Native Americans he killed, and people cheered that. So, as a South Carolinian, it was quite embarrassing to watch. But, you know, we live in the profoundly racist country, and this is a profoundly racist state. Yet, we can never seem to find any racist.

Obviously, what Newt Gingrich said is patently racist, because, first of all, the majority of people on food stamps aren’t black people. And Newt Gingrich is aiming at that large racist vote in South Carolina. You heard them cheer this idea that black folk somehow were standing in line for food stamps or black folk are standing in line to take something that belongs to white folk. That’s the slander of the racist, that black folk are lazy and are less—have less morals and don’t have the work ethic that the rest of the country or the rest of the people have. So, he’ll benefit from it. Whether or not it can lead him to winning the White House, I don’t think it’s going to work. I think it’s going to serve to organize and energize his opposition’s base supporters. So, you know, Newt can go on with this kind of racism instead of talking about how do we solve the problems of this country and how do we solve the economic problems of the black community.

Now, that being said, there is a lot of frustration with the White House, because when President Obama came into office we had a housing crisis, now we have a profound job crisis. Now, that is a fact. From the time Barack Obama came into office, black unemployment was around, what, 10 percent. Now it’s 16 percent. So, you know, we still have to be able to talk about the fact that we have massive unemployment, almost a depression in the black community. But surely, surely, the history of Newt Gingrich and this kind of rhetoric is racist. And it’s so funny, because in the early part of Barack Obama’s presidency, I can remember Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton meeting with the President because they both support this idea of school choice and expanding the charter school system in America.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you know, what amazed me about, especially in the Monday debate and the exchange there with Gingrich, was that Juan Williams, himself African American, a prominent conservative African American, was so directly—one, that he felt the need to raise the issue, and two, that Gingrich’s response was so brusque and aggressive toward Williams himself, that it really shows you that there’s a clear division occurring on issues of race already in this campaign. I’d like to ask Wayne Slater about that, what you feel in terms of this resurrection of the Southern strategy among Republicans.

WAYNE SLATER: Yeah, you mention the Southern strategy. That is exactly what it is. You think about Pat Buchanan’s memo to Richard Nixon back in 1968, the politics of division, pit one group against another, particularly racially. There was an interesting moment. Earlier this week in Greer, South Carolina, I was with Rick Perry, obviously before he dropped out. And he was talking to a group at the Southern Times Cafe, right around the corner from the Dixie Shoe Shop. And he said, “It’s important that we construct a campaign in which we have a sharp, bright contrast to Barack Obama.” And then he went on to say, “We don’t need a lighter version of Obama.” Extraordinary thing to say. Clearly, that wasn’t even coded racial language. That was a racial language designed to inflame and to rally a really vestigial force within the Republican Party in South Carolina.

And that is exactly the group that Newt Gingrich hopes to saddle when he so clearly confronts Juan Williams in that debate. You have this white man basically talking in a very condescending way to a rather established and accomplished black man. This is a message, not just what Gingrich said, but the way he said it, to voters in South Carolina, to northern Florida, northwestern Florida, and to other states later, if this thing continues in the Republican nomination primary.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to a reference Kevin Alexander Gray made that was to Newt Gingrich’s comment about President Andrew Jackson. I’m not sure how many people heard this or understood the reference during Monday’s debate.

NEWT GINGRICH: We are in South Carolina. South Carolina, in the Revolutionary War, had a young 13-year-old named Andrew Jackson. He was sabred by a British officer and wore a scar his whole life. Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: kill them.

AMY GOODMAN: Shortly after the debate, Indian Country Today published an article entitled “Newt Gingrich Loves Indian Killer Andrew Jackson,” pointing out that Jackson was the architect of the Indian Removal Act. The paper described the act as, quote, “America’s legalization of ethnic cleansing.” Kevin?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, and a lot of people didn’t pick up on that. And I’m glad that someone, and I’m glad, Amy, that you brought that out, because you had people in South Carolina, which I said, you know, was probably the saddest thing for me to watch on TV, was, as a South Carolinian, I was embarrassed that there were people who probably didn’t know Andrew Jackson’s history in the extermination and the genocide of Native Americans, cheering that. It made us look bloodthirsty. But then again, you can’t disconnect bloodthirstiness from racism and white supremacy. And this idea of not wanting a lighter version of Barack Obama, that goes to Mitt Romney’s religion. So, all these not even coded, not even hidden racist attacks on people, you know, people need to continue to call it out. I’m never surprised—I’m never surprised when politicians such as Newt Gingrich, when you look back at his history, and this idea of playing to the Tea Party, which plays to this idea that black people are less human and less moral than everybody else. And, you know, we’ve got to continue to say that this is racism.

And, of course, it doesn’t help when the Democrats do it, too, because Barack Obama came into South Carolina, and someone asked him, “Well, how you deal with the economic problems in the black community?” And the first thing he said was, “Well, I think it would be a good thing if the black community picked up paper and started picking up cans in the community.” And to me, there’s no difference in Barack Obama going into a church and saying, “Black men, you need to be men,” and Newt Gingrich saying that black folk want to stand in line and accept food stamps. There is no difference in that kind of racial politics.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask about another issue that has featured prominently in the Republican debates. At last night’s debate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum sparred over their stances on undocumented immigration.

MITT ROMNEY: You build a fence. You have enough Border Patrol agents to secure the fence. And you also have a system of giving to people who come here legally an identification card. And you expect employers and insist that employers check that card before they hire someone. If they don’t check the card, if they don’t run it through the U.S. database and get an instant response from the government, or from MasterCard, Visa, American Express or whomever, then those employers are going to get severely sanctioned. If you do that, we solve the problem of illegal immigration. And with regards to those that have come here illegally now, we’re not going to round them all up and deport them, but we’re also not going to give them a preferential pathway to become permanent residents or citizenships—citizens. They need to go back home, apply for citizenship, apply for permanent residency, like everyone else. Coming here illegally should not give you an advantage in being able to become a permanent resident of the United States.

JOHN KING: Do you have the same view, Senator?

RICK SANTORUM: If you want to be an American, the first thing you should do is respect our laws and obey our laws. And the idea that someone, whether it’s—whether it’s either of these two gentlemen, or the idea that someone who came here and lived here 25 years has only broken one law—if they’ve worked for 25 years, they’ve been breaking the law for 25 years. If they’ve been working, they have probably stolen someone’s Social Security number, and they’ve committed Social Security fraud. They—this is not just a single occurrence. It’s an ongoing issue. And if we treat people like that differently than we do with a mother who, out of a desperate situation, goes out and shoplifts or does something and gets thrown in jail, what are we saying? That we’re going to treat people in this country who do things for their family differently than those who are here illegally? I don’t think so.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Kevin Alexander Gray, the issue of immigration, how does that play out in South Carolina, which has had also an increasingly large Hispanic population, and especially in terms of the views of the Republican candidates?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, obviously, as you know, they’re passing laws to try to restrict where so-called “undocumented aliens” can work. They’ve tried to prescribe punishments for people that hire undocumented aliens. You know, it would—the Republican Party in South Carolina would like to use brown people the same way they use black people: as punching bags.

You know, and they mention Ronald Reagan when it’s convenient. They never mention that Ronald Reagan said, “Tear down this wall.” Instead, they talk about building a wall. They never mention that Ronald Reagan, I believe it was, was the first person that talked about a pathway to citizenship. They only use Ronald Reagan when it’s convenient.

So, but, of course, we—what—we had 100,000 people deported from this country last year. As a progressive, I believe in open borders. I know that New Mexico is named New Mexico for a reason. And people ought to understand the history of that. But, you know, obviously, it’s—and that’s straight out of the Karl Rove strategy. It’s about pitting white people against everybody else. And that’s just a key part of the Republican playbook.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Wayne Slater, finally, to talk about the meeting of the most influential social conservatives that took place this past week. But before we do that, I wanted to go back to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, just a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. This was Reagan’s first speech after accepting the Republican nomination for president.

RONALD REAGAN: I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ronald Reagan speaking in Mississippi. But Wayne Slater of Dallas Morning News, there was this meeting that took place in your state, in Texas, of some of the country’s most influential social conservatives. Can you talk about who they were, their significance and their endorsement?

WAYNE SLATER: Absolutely. I call it the religious-industrial complex in Washington. These were the power brokers among social conservatives involved in politics in the country: Richard Land, who is with the Southern Baptists; of course, James Dobson, who is very, very influential; Don Wildmon, who heads a group out of Mississippi that sponsored and is sponsoring the “Response” prayer rallies, the Rick Perry prayer rally in Houston that preceded his entry into the race; Gary Bauer; others. These are key figures, the most important figures, I think, in political social conservative life in the United States. And their concern was that Mitt Romney was going to run away with the nomination and that there was an effort, an effort to be made—at least they were going to try to make that effort—to rally around somebody else, a social conservative.

And what happened was, at that meeting, was a reflection of how divided social conservatives continue to be. On the one hand, you had some Newt Gingrich practical folks who said, “Look, he’s a tough guy. He’s got a lot of baggage. But he’s calling—he’s talked about redemption and asking God for forgiveness. He ought to be our nominee.” On the other hand, the majority wanted Rick Santorum, who’s much stronger on their issues but seen as weaker as a potential candidate against Romney. The highlight of that meeting for me was a moment when James Dobson, ostensibly the most influential social conservative leader in this country, talked privately to his group, 100 to 150 people, and said, “Do we want a first lady” — he was talking about Callista Gingrich — “Do we want a first lady who was an eight-year mistress of our nominee?” The room froze. And it really underscored the division within the party. Some social conservatives say they cannot forgive Newt Gingrich, or at least make him a nominee. Some social conservatives say, “We must do it.” They emerged with a supposed endorsement or consensus candidate, but there’s been in-fighting ever since.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question to Kevin Alexander Gray about a man we haven’t talked about yet, Ron Paul, what he is appealing to, generally and in South Carolina, and how you feel about him?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, the libertarian vote in South Carolina isn’t very large. And, of course, Ron Paul’s television advertisements in South Carolina feature a black man. Now—and I know he’s made several buys in the—on black radio. Romney has done direct mail to black voters in South Carolina. But, you know, if the progressive community—from my perspective, if they want to make sure that the antiwar message, anti-imperial message remains on the table, all the way to the Republican convention, and being that there’s no Democratic primary, you know, I’ve been telling people, unless you’re going to be a delegate to the convention or you’re a party officer, then why not go into the Republicans’ house and influence at least that very narrow part of the dialogue, the antiwar, anti-imperial, anti-National Defense Authorization bill, anti-PATRIOT Act? Those issues are important, and Ron Paul keeps those issues on the table. I think he’ll probably come in a third, probably get a lot of the old Nader vote. But, you know, obviously, black folks and Democrats are set to vote for Barack Obama as an expression of their dissatisfaction with the Republican Party. They’re not that willing to get into the Republican primary and kick over some chairs, which I think they ought to.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. Kevin Alexander Gray, civil rights activist, community organizer, speaking to us from Columbia, South Carolina, and Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News, was at the presidential—the 17th presidential debate last night in Charleston, South Carolina.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, is a military coup imminent in Pakistan? We’ll speak with Tariq Ali. Stay with us.

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