Recently Bill O’Reilly interviewed Tea Party Freshman Congressman Joe Walsh [R-Ill.] after Walsh made this eye-popping comment at a town hall meeting in his suburban Chicago district:
“The Democratic Party promises groups of people everything -- they want...Hispanics to be dependent on government...they want African Americans to be dependent government. That’s their game.”
That sure sounds like an old-fashioned, racially-charged attack on Hispanics and blacks as a bunch of ‘Welfare Queens’ under the spell of an evil Democratic Party.
But Walsh told O’Reilly he is not trying to ignite racial anger in his 84 percent white congressional district by demonizing blacks and Hispanics for supporting Democrats.
“You know what Bill, you know what it is?” Walsh said of his comments. “It is a shot at the Democratic Party. I tried to be insulting toward them and it’s a challenge [to Democrats].”
Walsh insisted his main point is that Democrats are the party of big government. And he said they want everyone, people of all colors, to be dependent on big government. By that logic, the Congressman explained, Democrats get votes from people who are addicted to big government’s handouts.
But if he was talking about all Americans who get a check from the government why did he mention only racial minorities?
He has a point if he is arguing that there is a disproportionately high percentage of racial minorities, especially children, are in poverty and receiving government aid.
But the bigger point is this: According to the latest available statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, some 60 percent of welfare recipients are white compared to 33 percent of blacks and less than 10 percent are Hispanic. And 27.5 percent of Medicaid recipients are black compared to the 48.5 percent of recipients who are white.
And among Americans using the food stamp program, about 37 percent are black and 46 percent are white – an 11-point racial gap. And what about the nation’s largest welfare program, Social Security? 88.7 percent of SSI beneficiaries are white and only 9.6 percent are African American.
To be clear, more whites use welfare programs such as food stamps than do blacks. More Americans of all kinds rely on these programs during a time of recession and high rates of unemployment. It is simply wrong to accuse Democrats of doling out food stamps to their black and Hispanic constituents.
Similarly, O’Reilly pointed out recently that about half of all soldiers of all colors returning from war now apply for disability payments, a much higher rate than veterans of previous wars. This has nothing to do with any party, Republican or Democrat, encouraging bad behavior by racial minorities.
The facts make it clear that this is not a debate about lazy minorities. It is a debate about America’s relationship with entitlement programs.
O’Reilly challenged Walsh on this point “Is it insulting for you and other Republicans to say (to African Americans) that you are just not smart enough to realize what the Democrats doing?”
Walsh did not answer the question. Instead he attacked Jesse Jackson:
“Jesse Jackson doesn’t want blacks to have opportunities.” Walsh replied. Earlier in the interview, Walsh said: “Jesse Jackson would be out of work if [blacks] were not dependent upon government. There would be no work for him.”
Bill countered that Jesse Jackson, a Chicago Democrat, would say he wants to give people in need a hand up, especially poor blacks with a history of suffering discrimination.
“Baloney,” said Walsh. “The best way to give a hand-up to inner city African American or a Hispanic parent is to give them the ability to send their child to any school in the city of Chicago. Jesse Jackson stands in the way of that. He want to imprison poor black kids them in under-performing schools.”
I actually agree with him on that – school choice will foster competition for educational excellence. That will help students trapped in the Chicago public schools and it is inexcusable that Jackson and too many other black leaders are not marching in support of it.
But that point fades far into the background for anyone who hears the congressman. His most memorable point is that poor blacks and Hispanics are parasites who are encouraged in their ways by the Democratic Party and Jesse Jackson. And it appears he is intent on using that message to stir racial resentments among white voters as he campaigns in a tough re-election race this fall against a strong Democrat, Tammy Duckworth, a war veteran.
With that approach Walsh is undercutting the importance of the national call for family values, hard work and personal responsibility – all of which I happen to share as a black man – by dragging racial politics into the equation.
During the GOP primaries this year former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said blacks should demand jobs not food stamps. He also called President Obama the “Food Stamp President.” At a Republican primary debate in I asked Gingrich if he was seeking to “belittle” black people more than to spotlight a problem and help people out of dependency.
Gingrich got cheers for the crowd for claiming to be ignoring politically correctness and speaking the truth. But he never answered the question. He seemed happy to benefit from any racial insult.
But let’s give Walsh and Gingrich the benefit of doubt.
My point to them is that if they truly want to improve the lives of poor people and attack a culture of dependency they are welcome to join the conversation but they will have to dial back the racial and political rhetoric and focus on policy.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.