Catholic leaders to candidates: Stop promoting racial stereotypes in campaigns

Catholic presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have made splashes in the headlines recently for uninformed and condescending remarks about black people in America. Today, more than 40 Catholic leaders and theologians have signed and sent a letter to Gingrich and Santorum with a clear message: stop perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes on the campaign trail.

On Martin Luther King Day, a day where we honor a man who worked tirelessly for racial equality (and to end poverty), Gingrich defended statements he made earlier in the month that singled out blacks in a remark about food stamps, where he said that he is prepared to speak to the NAACP about “why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

Rick Santorum recently tried to pass off a moment where he said “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them someone’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money” as an instance of merely being tongue tied. (Santorum denies that he said “black.” Watch the video and decide for yourself.)

It is in this context that today the Catholic leaders wrote:

We remind Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum that Catholic bishops describe racism as an “intrinsic evil” and consistently defend vital government programs such as food stamps and unemployment benefits that help struggling Americans. At a time when nearly 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty, charities and the free market alone can’t address the urgent needs of our most vulnerable neighbors. And while jobseekers outnumber job openings 4-to-1, suggesting that the unemployed would rather collect benefits than work is misleading and insulting.

Good for these Catholics, recognizing that the remarks of these politicians are totally inconsistent with our shared faith tradition. Gingrich and Santorum would most likely never be confused as the author of this statement, which came from Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the USCCB on unemployment and poverty:

In our Catholic parishes, schools, charities, hospitals and other ministries, the poor, the underemployed and the unemployed are not issues, but people with names and faces. It is an essential part of our work as Catholics to build a more just society and economy. We feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, educate the young, welcome refugees and care for the sick and vulnerable. The Church serves and stands in solidarity with those who are poor and jobless, helping them break the cycle of poverty and act on behalf of their own families and communities. We will continue to urge our leaders to assist and protect the poor and jobless as they seek to promote economic growth and fiscal responsibility. The Catholic community will strengthen our work with others to address the economic, family, social and other factors which contribute to widespread poverty.

The focus of anyone campaigning for president should be on the issue that concerns most Americans: jobs and the economy. Imagine what could happen if, instead of derisively referring to President Obama as “the best food stamp president” our nation has seen, politicians spent more time discussing ways to address the underlying causes of why so many people have recently had to resort to food stamps. (I’m pretty sure that a thorough examination would reveal that it’s not because people would rather have food stamps than work or because Obama walks around with food stamp cards handing them out to every person he sees sitting around who’s not working. Applying for food stamps can be a complicated process involving a lot of paperwork and verifications!)

People using food stamps do have names and faces. They are old, young, black, white, Latino, immigrants, physically disabled, people with master’s degrees, and full time employees.

And they deserve our commitment–including from elected officials–to “build a more just society and economy.”