Although ostensibly ambiguous, much can be read into Republican conservative Newt Gingrich’s assertion that Obama is a food stamp president. While progressives and all others interested in racial parity are astute if they point out how the statement reifies the notion that African-Americans exploit entitlement programs instead of seeking economic security through hard work, individuals motivated by a desire to challenge the hegemony resulting from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy should also question how Gingrich’s statement invokes a paradigm of class division rooted in ridiculing and dehumanizing the (racialized) poor. Having both contemporary and historical signification, Gingrich’s supposition speaks to both the divisive hatred engendered by the post-Civil War black codes as well as the modern day Republican party’s attempt to dismantle any socioeconomic and political power concentrated amongst poor people of color. Indeed, when one examines Gingrich’s statement in context of America’s colonizing history and ostensibly postmodern present, the signification of his supposition becomes evident. In asserting that Obama is a food stamp president, Gingrich’s words can be viewed as the perpetuation of the notion that the goal of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is to ensure cheap labor at the hands of poor black people.
That the black codes amounted to the perpetuation of a fundamentally racist and class elitist system of thought and praxis becomes plain when one considers them (whether carefully or cursorily). In addition to precluding blacks from testifying against whites in court, the codes prohibited African-Americans from serving on juries and-in some states-limited the occupational opportunities afforded to them. While these laws demonstrate the racist nature of the black codes, the legislation maintaining that those who failed to sign yearly labor contracts with employers could be arrested and hired out reveals the class elitist implications of the rules. In essence, this aspect of the black codes worked to ensure that black people (who were quite likely already in an economically precarious condition) remained dependent upon a “free” market capitalist system that ultimately exploited them by 1. forcing them to participate in it and 2. paying them low wages such that extrication from the oppressive system was unlikely. Herein lies the role that economic exploitation (which reinforced class elitism by constructing social hegemonies resulting in cultural divisions and notions of superiority/inferiority) played in the construction and actualization of the black codes. Ultimately, the codes were a mechanism through which people of color-already oppressed in myriad ways because of their blackness-were further exploited through the manipulation of money such that it remained in the hands of wealthy whites.
When one considers the historicity of the black codes in connection with Gingrich’s reference to Obama as a food stamp president, two things become clear. In tying an African-American president to food stamps, Gingrich likely perpetuates the notion that people of color have a proclivity for accepting money from entitlement programs rather than working willfully. In addition to this, Gingrich’s statement may reinforce the idea that black people need to be locked into an economic system of exploitation operating under the code phrase “free market capitalism” for the purpose of perpetuating a white power structure in which African-Americans are payed low wages for work while wealthy Caucasian business owners profit from this labor. (It should be stated that this system oppresses poor and middle-class whites as well, but that is not the focus presently.) That this so-called free market capitalist system functions as a form of enslavement becomes even more plain when one considers the roles job discrimination and inequality in education play in precluding African-Americans from developing careers that will lead to economic prosperity and entrepreneurial endeavors. Thus, when one considers the import of Gingrich’s statement, the role it plays in reifying the black codes becomes plain: the politician likely invokes a (perhaps prototypically Republican) rhetoric alluding to the idea that African-Americans need to be controlled and confined through participation in a free market capitalist system that frequently operates as a form of exploitation and enslavement.