‘Blacks Should Not Be Satisfied With Food Stamps’: The Danger of Stereotypes

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are the latest politicians to perpetuate negative stereotypes about Blacks. Dr. Claude Steele, educator and expert on stereotypes, gives advice on the dangers of these kinds of misstatements, their impact on the workplace and how to handle them.

By Barbara Frankel

Claude Steele

What should you do if one of your executives uses a negative stereotype, especially in a public forum? How can you make sure your workplace doesn’t tolerate these types of damaging misconceptions, which impact morale and productivity? Learn a lesson from recent verbal missteps by presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum and see what Dr. Claude Steele advises you to do.

Gingrich announced that “If the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied cultural competence with food stamps.”

NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous called the statement “inaccurate and divisive.”

Santorum said at a campaign stop in Iowa: “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.” After getting national criticism for the remark, he said he was “pretty confident that I didn’t say ‘Black,’” but the video shows that he did indeed say that. Watch the video.

Dr. Steele, dean of education at Stanford University and former provost of Columbia University, is the author of “Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.” Dr. Steele, who analyzed these stereotypes at a DiversityInc event, told us that statements like these have long-term impact on workplace engagement and productivity. Watch the video.

“As my work has taught me and illustrates, stereotypes are not innocent or easily ignorable. They create pressures on people to see others in those stereotypes and degrade the quality of life for people who are stereotyped. They have a profound effect of creating discomforts that are attached to our identities,” he said. “Politicians resort to reinforcing old stereotypes about groups because it gives people belief that these things still are true … it creates a sense of social reality. Even though Obama’s the president, it keeps them alive.”

What would he recommend you do if someone in your organization perpetuated a stereotype? Be true to your values. “If I were leading an organization and this happened, if the opportunity arose in a naturalistic way, I’d condemn it and say this is something to be ashamed of. That’s what happened in the civil-rights movement; I’m old enough to remember when you could use the N-word in Congress, and that’s not acceptable anymore,” Dr. Steele said.

For more on clarity of values, read CEO Commitment: Why Visibility & Accountability Matter and Why Julie Goodridge Might Be the Scariest Person in Investment Banking. Also read Ask the White Guy: Decision Making, Clarity of Values & What to Do When It Goes Horribly Wrong.

The real danger, Claude emphasized, is in people accepting these stereotypes. “These people are dangerously trafficking in stereotypes and making this a normative behavior. That’s what happens eventually; behavior shifts and these are no longer the norm,” Dr. Steele said.

And people often accept these statements without checking the facts. For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, offers food stamps. PolitiFact says participation is high, but that’s because of efforts since the Bush administration to increase participation. The largest group of SNAP recipients is white people, and most SNAP participants are younger than 18.

Facts are important in diversity work and in destroying stereotypes. Here are some diversity-management lessons demonstrated by companies in the DiversityInc Top 50 to address stereotypes in your organization.

Ensure Diversity Training Is Mandatory

Seventy-eight percent of the DiversityInc Top 50 require mandatory cultural-competence training for their managers, and 66 percent require it for their entire workforce. While one can’t regulate what comes out of an employee’s mouth, teaching people about the need for respectful speech, as well as what type of speech is hateful, goes a long way to avoiding these types of hurtful communications.

Former NBA star John Amaechi addressed the power of hateful words recently when he keynoted DiversityInc’s special-awards ceremony. Read highlights from John Ameachi’s speech and watch the video.

Get the Message Out Externally and Internally, Starting at the Top

From your CEO’s statement on diversity (which should be on your corporate homepage) to your mission statement to all your external and internal communications, the message of respect and inclusion has to be clear and constant. Allowing any stereotypes for any group, including white men, to be perpetuated in any way by your company opens the door for these kinds of comments. A no-tolerance-for-disrespect policy, from the highest ranks of the company on down, must be clearly and consistently articulated.

Mandate Cross-Cultural Mentoring—Allow Senior Leadership to ‘Walk in Others’ Shoes’

Formal, cross-cultural mentoring relationships enable people from different backgrounds to really get to know each other and enhance cultural awareness, especially for senior, white, male executives. The one-on-one nature of the relationship, both studies and DiversityInc data show, are critical to that increased knowledge. Progressively more companies also require both mentors and mentees to undergo cultural-competence training before beginning the formal mentoring arrangement. Ninety-four percent of DiversityInc Top 50 companies now have formal, cross-cultural mentoring programs.

Expose CEOs and Senior Executives to Different Employees Through ERGs

Ninety percent of DiversityInc Top 50 CEOs now meet regularly with leaders of employee-resource groups. That connection, one shared by other senior executives, is invaluable in developing understanding of the group’s constituencies. For more on the positive effects of CEO commitment on talent development, read Increasing Diversity in Talent Development.

Related stories/videos:

The G.O.P.’s ‘Black People’ Platform
New York Times’ op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow comments on and debunks the rhetoric from GOP candidates Santorum and Gingrich and how they play on existing racial anxieties.

Gay, Black Aide Defends Santorum
One of Santorum’s former aides, Chris Matthews, a Black and openly gay man, defends the candidate. Here’s what he said.

NAACP Blasts Santorum for Targeting Blacks in Entitlement Reform
A CBS news video shows Rick Santorum’s comments that single out Blacks as recipients of federal benefits. The NAACP says his remarks are “inaccurate and outrageous,” while Santorum denies he said “Black.”

NAACP Leader Blasts Gingrich’s Food Stamp Comment
Gingrich’s comments, as shown in a CBS news video, positions Blacks and other traditionally non-represented groups as jobless people relying on food stamps. NAACP refutes the inaccuracies and Gingrich denies his remarks were racist.

Newt Gingrich ‘Irritated’ By Outrage Over His Comments On Food Stamps
A Black person, Yvan Lamothe, speaks up to Gingrich at the candidate’s town hall in New Hampshire, and Gingrich aims to clarify his original remarks.

Black Woman Confronts Santorum Over Comments: ‘Why Do You Have A Problem Against Black People?’
At a campaign event in New Hampshire, a Black woman confronted Santorum on his racist remarks. A Think Progress post provides an audio recording and a photo of the exchange.

Why Santorum’s Comment Isn’t Racist
An article on The Root calls attention to how the comments take root in a deeper fear by GOP members to discuss issues of race and truly connect with Black voters.

Rick Santorum To John King: I Didn’t Say Black People, I Said ‘Blah’ People
What did you hear Santorum say? “Blah,” “Black” or something else? Mediaite.com offers readers a “What Did You Hear Rick Santorum Say?” poll and a video from the candidate’s appearance on John King USA where he tries to defend his statements.

Did Newt Gingrich really say Blacks should “demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps”?
Gingrich said that his comments aren’t racially charged if you look at them in context. Metro posts the full text of what he said for readers.

The Slanders Against Santorum Clarify the Real Conflict
This blog defends Santorum, saying NPR and leftists “manufactured a controversy” to slander “a man who’s one of the nation’s leading advocates for rebuilding African-American families.”

Sarah Palin defends Newt Gingrich: David Gregory of ‘Meet the Press’ asked ‘racist-tinged’ question
Palin says the “Food Stamp President” line wasn’t racist—it was an answer to a reporter’s question that was tinged with racism. Was it a set-up?

Recommended Articles


  • D. McKee-Stovall

    When ever I hear these types of broad brush statements from people in leadership positions who should know better, rather than assume their intention I would love for reporters and people in general to be very curious before lashing out with anger. I say this because we live in an age when:
    1. People really do know better
    2. We should be holding people who make these types of demeaning

    • D. McKee-Stovall

      remarks responsible.
      3. We should require explanations and justifications for such remarks.Without additional information we can’t enter into a productive dialogue and we certainly can’t use the flawed reasoning for such remarking as a path for correction or transformation.
      4. We should never accept any response that begins or ends with some version of “If my remarks offended.” Because the legions of people that have been offended recognize it as code for an insincere apology and an unwillingness to assume personal responsibility for damage that has been wrought with careless thinking and an undisciplined tongue.
      5. We all know how to engage in positive interactions with people. The real problem is whether or not we choose do so. We can’t afford to sit back an let individuals abuse others. We need to step up and “occupy” that space called “morale righteousness”. And when we do step up, our hearts need to be guided by compassion and grace.

  • Great article. Dumb comment by Newt Gingrich, not defending him, but I am surprised that so many don’t get what he was really saying… that is that big government doesn’t really help people in a meaningful way.

    • Luke Visconti

      I think that big government helps a lot of people in a lot of ways – there are more than 600,000 people working for the Postal Service – millions of people in the uniformed services – more millions in other federal agencies – and even more millions in the state and local agencies that exist to serve requirements set by the federal government. Millions of shareholders and employees of federal contractors are helped. And since half of Americans don’t pay any income tax, I’d assume that most of them are receiving payments that range from Social Security to Food Stamps. By singling out BLACK PEOPLE on FOOD STAMPS, in my opinion, the message isn’t about big government – it’s about “some people” (who aren’t in the audience) getting something they don’t deserve from people who are in the audience. People repeating that kind of nonsense create problems in the workplace by damaging productivity of those who are the target of this claptrap. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

    • If anyone on the right has a valid point to make, I would suggest that they discontinue the notion of mixing the message with the strategy of engaging their constituency through racially loaded and fact-free opinions. To do so, only to apologize, attempt to justify, tell you that you didn’t hear what you heard (“blah” people? really?) and/or take on the “I’m the victim here” meme that seems to become more prevalent — is disingenuous and suspect. We see who you are.

    • Ummmmm…. it does sound like your defending him. If he would have said “I will tell the Black community that there should be less government, and to work hard” that would be totally acceptable. He basically said that all Blacks are on welfare. And this is such a huge stereotype. I don’t even know a Black person who is on food stamps. But I know of several Whites that are on food stamps.

      • Reggie – I apologize, I missed the mark. I really was not defending him; I was hoping to start a dialog about how partisan some of our great institutions are. Let me clarify … Newt’s Comment was stupid, ignorant and insensitive. Also, I have met him personally and based on his actions I don’t like him.

    • I understand what you mean, RC. But, we have to be accountable for what comes out of our mouths AND hold others accountable for what comes out of theirs. We can’t live in society without thinking about the impact of our words and just think it can all be excused by saying “You know what I mean’t” or “I didn’t mean it that way.” If a person is educated, then use words thoughtfully. THINK before you just throw out broad brush statements and just wait for it to be interpreted out of context (and then pretend like everyone else is just being “sensitive”). And like another responder said, people really do know better! We live in a country that has a very “haunting” racial history. So, for better or for worse, these are concepts that we just cannot escape. So unless one has been living under a rock, there is no, “I didn’t know that was offensive.”

  • Brian Fullford

    I’m not clear on what the stereotype is that the article refers to. If candidate X is asked about speaking to the NAACP it makes sense that he/she would qualify that statement based on the racial makeup of the group. If I’m being too obtuse in evaluating this “misstep” then I welcome the education.

    • “If the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied cultural competencewith food stamps.”

      It is implying that my community is satisfied through cultural competence with food stamps when majority of food stamp recipients are NOT from the African-American community (whoever that includes, I’m not sure these days). His statement is not solution-focused nor strength-based. It is inaccurate, insensitive and does not speak to the program’s recipients at large who are mostly white.

      Here we are in 2012, and we are still struggling for an “even playing field”, while the priviledged (who do not know that they are) defend their ignorance and make comments like “I didn’t say Black..I said Blah..” What an insult!

    • The stereotype is the myth that the majority of recipients of food stamps and welfare monies are people of color and African descent. It’s been a long held view of many Anglos and speaks to the paradigm by which they define the Black community as a whole. The truth is that in spite of the myth, more Anglos have always received more welfare assistance and food stamps. They could be your next door neighbors in fact. Currently 70% of the food stamp recipients are Anglo, 94% of the recipients in Iowa are Anglo, so the question becomes why bring race into the dialogue at all? Could it be that this is just a continuance of the ongoing, covert message to the right wing constituency that the POTUS and first family is just in the White House on a super, high-end welfare dole that taxpayers have to pay for and that he isn’t doing anything to earn that “welfare check?” Racism isn’t a paranoia, it is a strategy.

      • E. Joyce: I think you hit the nail right on the head. This is “code talk” targeted to reach a very specific audience, and it ain’t black folks. Most troubling, is that the level of this kind of “reverse toungue in cheek” is on the rise. I would make the case Mr. Gingrich is not only sending a signal to his constituents, but a “shot across the bow” to the Black community and other people of color.

    • Leann Simmons

      It’s not just that he made this careless remark. But once again, it reminds and reveals the psycho-social perspective that if he were to speak to the NAACP, that his best example of addressing the needs of that community is to assume a position that highly suggests social program dependency. Bill Cosby saying it would not matter, and I think if you paid attention to the Cosby respondants, you would see that his racially divisiive assumptions called for clarification and were not as palatable. Note again, why you don’t hear much from BIll these days anymore.

      But why does speaking to the NAACP have to harken to food stamp dependency? Because there is a psycho-social perspective that says, “I’m preaching to the choir” and being relational. Underneath that is a racial stereotype, because numerically, and statistically, we know this African Americans are not the food stamp choir. CHeck the percentages of your Appalachian and non-Hispanic Caucasian counterparts. But it is just a perspective that refuses to die. And off the cuff comments like this, keep fuel on that fire.

  • These types of statements burn me up. I’m a Black-Hispanic female who is highly educated. Not a person I know or associate with has ever been on food stamps. We are all educated, our kids are privately schooled, we feed the retail tax quite regularly with our purchases and—surprise, surprise, surprise—we are all either Black or Hispanic or some combination thereof. Many of us grew up poor, but guess what…none our parents were on assistance of any sort—in fact many of us were poor because our parents were in the military, living on bare wages. How long before you realize that poverty has no color, that food stamps recipients are predominately white, and that we are not your scapegoats any longer. Newt—get it straight—we have arrived and we are the voting block you should fear most, particularly when you make statements like that.

  • Luke Visconti

    Why is it occurring? The reason that more Blacks receive food stamps on a percentage basis is rooted in our country’s history of institutional racism, which stems from slavery, exists in many forms today and whose repercussions are present throughout our economy. See the recent Pew Research reports about household wealth if you have any questions. What can we do about it? In my opinion, the resolution to disparities is to mandate equity in educational outcome as measured by results. This would be expensive, perhaps we might have to reduce our current military spending from more than the next 17 militaries added together – maybe we could make do with more than only the next 7 militaries. But here’s the real question – do you think these two politicians were given their talking points out of a sudden, profound, deep interest in improving the lives of Black Americans? Or do you think they’re focused on garnering interest from people who are concerned about the race of the current president? And if we’re going to start really worrying about government handouts, shouldn’t we start on the fat end of the stick? Let’s start with wealthy people – for example, I’m all for means testing Social Security and Medicare. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

  • juanita h wilson

    Does it really matter whose getting SNAP? What policitians should ask is, Why are there so many Americans on SNAP? We are so busy pointing the finger at black or white, that the root cause is lost and it keeps us from coming together as a country to find a solution so everyone can benefit. It’s an American problem, not a black or white problem. Now, to be realistic, this country has not been fair to its black citzens. So many people from other countries can come to America and get more opportunities opened to them in one year then what most blacks can get during their entire lives. How fair is that? There are many Black Americans who do not want a handout but opprtunities open to them to achieve the same dreams as ALL Americians…to be self sufficient with the ability to take care of their families as any other race in this country. We need to STOP the madness. Are Blacks only to be American when it is convenient for politican.

  • As an educated Black female in America, I am offended by Gingrich and Santorium and their ignorant comments. First of all, every black person knows that if the MAJORITY of people on welfare, SNAP, and other government assisted programs were black — they (the programs) would have ended long ago. My impression of Gingrich especially, if he could, he would put black people back in slavery. As far as I am concerned, black people in America, have not and never will be treated as equals in America. America was born, bred and raised itself on racism — and the black race has been, and still is singled out for the most harmful racist actions in this country.

    I end with this statement, if Newt Gingrich becomes President, I am leaving the United States !!!! For He will NOT BE MY PRESIDENT !!!

  • BooBie Smith

    “How can you make sure your workplace doesn’t tolerate these types of damaging misconceptions, which impact morale and productivity?

    “WTF (Why) would we, should we, will we want to?

« Previous Article     Next Article »