Two weeks ago at the Fox News/Wall Street Journal debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., I asked each GOP presidential candidate some pointed questions about the racial politics that will play a big role in the presidential campaign.
Race is always a trigger in politics, but now a third of the nation are people of color — and their numbers are growing. With those minorities solidly in the Democratic camp and behind the first black president, the scene is set for a bonanza of racial politics.
The language of GOP racial politics is heavy on euphemisms that allow the speaker to deny any responsibility for the racial content of his message. The code words in this game are “entitlement society” — as used by Mitt Romney — and “poor work ethic” and “food stamp president” — as used by Newt Gingrich.
References to a lack of respect for the “Founding Fathers” and the “Constitution” also make certain ears perk up by demonizing anyone supposedly threatening core “old-fashioned American values.”
The code also extends to attacks on legal immigrants, always carefully lumped in with illegal immigrants, as people seeking “amnesty” and taking jobs from Americans.
But the code sometimes breaks down.
Last week a passionate Republican told GOP candidate Rick Santorum: “I never refer to Obama as President Obama because legally he is not [president]. He constantly says that our Constitution is passé and he ignores it. … He is an avowed Muslim and my question is, why isn’t something being done to get him out of government? He has no legal right to be calling himself president.”
Santorum did not blink. The man who recently said he meant “blah people” — when the world heard him say “black people” — as he spoke about parasitic Americans who get better lives by taking “somebody else’s money,” did not correct the assault on the truth. Instead he agreed that Obama is attacking the Constitution and said: “Well, look, I’m trying my best to get him out of office.”
Santorum did not follow Sen. John McCain’s example in 2008 when a Republican called Obama an “Arab.” McCain responded that while he had policy differences with Obama he is a “decent, family man [and] citizen.”
At the Myrtle Beach debate the question I asked Rick Perry was about the GOP push for a new voter identification law in South Carolina, a state with a history of denying black people the right to vote.
I asked Romney about his vocal opposition to parts of the DREAM Act, which would give the children of illegal immigrants an earned pathway to citizenship. I asked Ron Paul about the racial disparity in our legal system with respect to enforcement of drug laws.
But the question that caused the most controversy was the one I posed to Gingrich.
The former Speaker has declared that black people should demand jobs instead of food stamps. And he has proposed having poor students work as janitors in their high schools. Regardless of how they were intended, poor people and minorities sense that with those comments Gingrich is winking — some call it “dog whistling” — at certain white audiences by intimating that black people are lazy, happy to live off the government and lacking any intellect.
Gingrich did not answer my question but rather threw red meat to Republicans in South Carolina, a state with a long history of racial politics.
He used the same rhetorical technique of the segregationist politicians of the past: rejecting the premise of the question, attacking the media and playing to the American people’s resentment of liberal elites, minorities and poor people.
In the days since the debate, people have asked if I regretted the way I phrased the question. I do not. I do not know anyone on food stamps who would prefer them to gainful employment.
Just last week, the Labor Department reported that while the national unemployment rate fell slightly, black unemployment rose again from 15.5 percent to 15.8 percent and from 39.6 percent to 42.1 percent among young black people. The same report showed 11 percent of Hispanics are unemployed.
The problem is not a lack of work ethic on the part of the poor, who are disproportionately minorities. The problem is there are few good jobs for blue-collar people with the best work ethic.
Let’s have an honest debate about why this is the case and what we can do to fix it.
But I regret that our political discourse has become so fragmented and combative that the point I was trying to make was obscured by pro-wrestling theatrics and post-debate spin.
Poverty, unemployment and the hopelessness that pervade minority communities are real issues that the GOP nominee, and President Obama for that matter, should address in this campaign.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His most recent book is "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) was released in July. This column originally appeared on TheHill.com.