When Gingrich used Black poverty to hype the coming apocalypse

The news about Ron Paul’s racism reminds me how many American politicians — if they have been around since the 1980s or 1990s — have such racial skeletons in their political closets. Even when they don’t reach the level of explicit racism of some of Ron Paul’s old newsletters.

Back then, poverty, crime and welfare — when paired with reference to “cities,” the “underclass” or single mothers — were all racial code regularly used to motivate Whites to oppose government support for the poor and bolster the policy of mass incarceration. With the fall in crime rates and the dismantling of welfare — and the rise of Latino immigration as a substitute boogeyman — the tone has changed and these issues have lost some of their racial salience.

Paul’s newsletter, in reaction to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, joked, “Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks,” according to the Weekly Standard.

In a fundraising letter written about 1993 and signed by him, according to Reuters, Paul not only warned of a coming “race war” in U.S. cities, but also this:

I fear there will be welfare riots in the big cities. Massive unemployment. The destruction of wealth. The erosion of personal liberties. Vicious economic controls. The exaltation of envy.

And so on: From welfare riots to government repression (see “jack-booted government thugs“), via “the exaltation of envy” (which I guess refers to poor people coming after the middle class).

Racism is one thing, but the political racism of that period — that directed against Blacks — focused on crime, violence and welfare, so much that these issues became racial issues. Ruth Sidel argued that, in the post-Cold War 1990s, poor single mothers — especially Black single mothers — shouldered much of the load of the American right’s apocalyptic tendencies.

Now, as Newt Gingrich has joined the congregation of people attempting to share the righteous limelight exposing Paul’s racism, it reminded me of a quote from Gingrich I’ve been using for years in my Family and Stratification courses, from 1995:

No civilization can survive for long with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year-olds killing one another, 17-year-olds dying AIDS, and 18-year-olds getting diplomas they can’t read.

That was part of a series of columns published in various places, as adapted excerpts from his book To Renew America. (Here it is in the Gainesville Sun, August 6, 1995.)

In the same column, Gingrich wrote that, “our civilization is decaying, with an underclass of poverty and violence growing in our midst.” He didn’t say, “Poor Blacks pose an existential threat to White America,” but he might as well have.

6 thoughts on “When Gingrich used Black poverty to hype the coming apocalypse

  1. Honestly, I’m getting tired of hatred of the poor, which is immoral and unjust, being automatically interpreted as racism. Do you honestly think these candidates would suddenly love welfare if it only went to poor white people?

    It prohibits any rational conversations from occurring.


    1. “Do you honestly think these candidates would suddenly love welfare if it only went to poor white people?”

      This is a good question and one that has been answered by several books that take a socio-historical look at welfare. Three great books that address this subject are Ellen Reese’s “Backlash Against Welfare Mothers: Past and Present,” Gwendolyn Mink’s “Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the Welfare State, 1917-1942,” and Jill Quadagno’s “The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty.” All of the authors point out that for much of its history, whites were the only recipients of welfare, and the program was not seen by most as problematic. Only after the civil rights act of 1964, were groups of color allowed access to the program. And only after this occurred, was there a very open opposition to the program by white politicians and an increasing backlash to both state and national welfare programs. So the historical record would argue, quite convincingly, that these candidates would probably not have had issue with the program if it had remained open only to whites. I would also argue, that your comment seems to suggest that we should talk about class separately from race (in this case on how they affect the issue of welfare), which is problematic since these two social structures intersect to affect everyone’s lives. So instead of having a conversation that solely focuses on class issues and welfare, it would be more constructive to discuss how class AND race (and gender, nation, ability, and sexuality for that matter) intersect to affect not only one’s views on welfare but also one’s chances someone will need access to the programs.


  2. Professor,
    I’ve been following your blog for some time now. This post struck me as unfair, considering that you read race into a statement that makes no mention of race. To the contrary, you inferred racism into the quote. That says something about your internal biases, not Gingrich’s.


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