Commentary: Santorum stumbles over food stamps stereotype

Rick Santorum speaks in Northfield, N.H.
Rick Santorum speaks in Northfield, N.H. AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Unfortunately, I’m never amazed at what can come out of a politician's mouth. The latest non-surprise flowed from the lips of former Sen. Rick Santorum as he campaigned in Iowa.

Santorum said, and I’ll use the complete quote in context so you get the full understanding of his statement: “It just keeps expanding (social programs) -- I was in Indianola a few months ago and I was talking to someone who works in the department of public welfare here, and she told me that the state of Iowa is going to get fined if they don’t sign up more people under the Medicaid program. They’re just pushing harder and harder to get more and more of you dependent upon them so they can get your vote. That’s what the bottom line is.”

“I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” Applause.

“And provide for themselves and their families.” More applause. “The best way to do that is to get the manufacturing sector of the economy rolling again.”

Unfortunately, Santorum is a victim of his breeding, and he tripped over a stereotype and didn’t even know it, which, by the way, is not all that unusual.

A fact probably not known to the Iowans in the room with Santorum is that 84 percent of Iowans who receive food stamps are white.

So why did Santorum single out African-Americans in a state that has a black population of 2.9 percent?

Look, I know the stereotype is there. It’s easier to get up in the morning and imagine you’re all that when you look in the mirror and it’s “those people” who aren’t picking themselves up by their own bootstraps.

According to the National Urban League’s Marc Morial, “Sen. Santorum is perpetuating a thoroughly false and destructive racial stereotype in a desperate attempt to score political points.” Morial pointed out that nationally 70 percent of food stamp recipients are white.

I’m not calling Santorum a racist; I can’t say what’s in his heart. A panderer? Yes.

In evidence that he didn’t know he had tripped over a stereotype, in the days following his comment, he used everything from, “I don’t remember saying that,” to he had a brain freeze and said “blah” instead of “black.” However, he admits it sounded like “black.”

Newt Gingrich said much the same thing while on the campaign trail, however, as is his custom, he thoroughly explained his comment that he would go, if invited, to the NAACP convention to explain why the African- American community should demand “paychecks” instead of food stamps. He prefaced that comment by saying “every community” if faced with a choice, would prefer a paycheck.

The problem I see in many people, white and black, is that they aren’t conscience of their tendency to discount people who do not look like them. Hispanics have to worry whether an officer of the law will trip over a stereotype when he pulls them over in a traffic stop. Those who practice Islam have to be concerned they’ll face intense scrutiny as they bow in prayer. Sikhs worry that their turbans make them look Muslim.

Many, like Santorum, continue to move glibly through their own little universe, patting themselves on their backs, never understanding they are tripping over stereotypes with each step.

Santorum’s comments are particularly hypocritical. Morial pointed out that “Santorum himself, while earning more than $162,000 as a U.S. senator and living in a $643,361 home, admitted in 2005 that he could not make ends meet without financial help from his retired federal employee parents.”

So much for your own bootstraps.