Skip to main content

Why hasn't America progressed on race?

By Newt Gingrich, CNN Contributor
July 23, 2013 -- Updated 1929 GMT (0329 HKT)
  • Newt Gingrich: Obama addressed race openly, as he did in 2008
  • Gingrich says America hasn't made progress on problems related to race
  • He points to deep-seated cultural, governmental issues that are at work
  • Gingrich: We need dialogue on solutions and the courage to carry them out

Editor's note: Newt Gingrich is the new co-cost of CNN's "Crossfire," which starts this fall. A former speaker of the House, he was a candidate in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries.

(CNN) -- On Friday, President Obama addressed the issue of race perhaps more openly than at any other point in his presidency.

Reacting to emotional debate over the Trayvon Martin case, the president explained that "the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."

In many ways, the president's remarks were amazingly similar to his famous speech on race as a senator and presidential candidate in 2008. It's still worth reading that original speech. It's unfortunate for America that virtually every problem remains the same.

Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich

What follows is an abbreviated and edited text of my response to his 2008 address, a speech I gave at the American Enterprise Institute nine days later. I think you will find it remarkably relevant today, almost without change:

I really do believe that we have a unique opportunity to think anew about the challenge of poverty, racism, and those Americans who have been left out of the pursuit of happiness.

I think that it is the opportunity which (President) Obama gave all of us in his speech to re-engage in a dialogue about poverty, race, and the future of those Americans who are currently unable to pursue happiness. That is something we should not casually set aside.

President Obama gets personal on race
Race and justice in America

(President) Obama said, and I quote:

"This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn, that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids; they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st-century economy. Not this time."

Read a transcript of President Obama's remarks

Let me suggest to all of you that if you set aside the normal partisanship and cynicism of politics, that that's a very powerful paragraph, and a paragraph worthy of response at the same level. I take up this opportunity, both to reject cynicism, but also to suggest that we find real solutions. But to find real solutions, I would argue, we have to have real honesty and a serious dialogue in which unpleasant facts are put on the table and bold proposals are discussed.

(President) Obama gave us a very courageous speech. We owe it to him and to the topic to take it very seriously and respond to the level of eloquence and systematic explanation that he gave us. He asked historic questions, and that is appropriate. And I want to make quite clear, my speech today is not an answer to (President) Obama. It is not a refutation. Hopefully, it is the beginning of a genuine dialogue in which people of all backgrounds can come together to have a serious conversation about America's future.

Let me start by talking about the concept of anger, because I do think there's an authenticity and legitimacy of anger by many groups in America. (President) Obama said in his speech:

"That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings. ... That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition."

I think that that's right, and I think that it's important to recognize that anger can be a source of energy to create a better future -- in which case it's a very good thing. But if anger is a self-inflicted wound that limits us, it is a very bad and a very dangerous thing. And we have to be very careful about the role that anger plays in our culture. Tragically, what has happened is that cultural and political leaders have used anger as an excuse to avoid reality, as an excuse to avoid change, as an excuse to avoid accountability, because everything that is wrong is somehow somebody else's fault.

Now, (President) Obama is right about the destructive impact of historic injustices and the anger they cause in different groups of Americans. And as a historian, of course, I agree with (William) Faulkner, as quoted in (President) Obama's speech: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past."

In my own life, I was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I grew up in an integrated U.S. Army at Fort Riley, Kansas; in Orleans, France; and in Stuttgart, Germany. I did not encounter legal segregation until I was a junior in high school at Columbus, Georgia. Segregation was a horrible institution imposed by force by the state. It ruined the lives of people, it crippled their futures, it was a terrible injustice, and it is totally authentic to be angry about it.

As (President) Obama notes,"The legalized discrimination -- where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments -- meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations."

Anyone who thinks that there was not this destructive impact is simply not in touch with the reality of American history for African-Americans.

Other groups have reasons for anger. Native Americans have a claim probably at least as great if not greater than African-Americans. Japanese-Americans went through a period of internment in World War II. Jewish Americans have a history which includes the Holocaust but extends back before the Holocaust to pogroms in Russia; anti-Semitism in Poland; expulsion from Spain; and, in the last 50 years, an unrelenting and virtually hysterical effort by their Arab neighbors to exterminate them in a way which no other group has experienced.

So there are many groups that could find causes for anger. But I would go a step further. I would argue that as citizens of a country which asserted that we are all endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, every American has things to be angry about. Simply ask yourself, if it was your daughter or son, if it was your granddaughter or grandson, trapped in some of the disastrous conditions of the very poor and very dispossessed in America, how angry would you be?

Consider some examples: At the Rosebud Sioux reservation in 2007, (with) a population of 13,000, 144 young Native Americans tried to commit suicide -- arguably the highest suicide rate in the United States.

In 2006, the poverty rate in America was 12.3%. For non-Hispanic whites, it was 8.2%, but for blacks, it was 24.3%.

In 2007, 46.8% of 12th-graders admitted to taking some sort of illicit drug in their lifetime; 35.6% of 10th-graders made the same admission; and in 2006, 20.9% of eighth-graders -- let me repeat this, among eighth-grade Americans, every fifth American child -- admitted to taking some sort of illicit drug.

(Nearly) 1% of the American population ... is in prison. That is (roughly) the entire population of the cities of Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta, (and) Detroit ... combined.

Now, how can you hear these things -- in a country that says we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights -- and not be angry? So I think anger can be, should be, a universal American feeling about those things that dissatisfy us and about a culture and a government which is failing.

Consider homicides in our cities: In Philadelphia in 2006, there were 406 murders.

(The violence in Philadelphia has been reduced since 2008 thanks to new policing strategies. The larger problem of urban violence remains, however. In 2012, 532 people were murdered in Chicago. Nationwide, gang membership has increased by roughly 40%.)

To give you a sense of the scale of this, there's an article called "The War in West Philadelphia," written by Dr. John Pryor, who was an Iraq combat surgeon and an emergency room doctor in Philadelphia. This is what he said:

"In the swirl of screams and moving figures, my mind drifted to my recent experience in Iraq as an Army surgeon. There we dealt regularly with 'MASCALS,' or mass-casualty situations. In Iraq, ironically, I found myself drawing on my experience as a civilian trauma surgeon each time a MASCAL would overrun the combat hospital. As nine or ten patients from a firefight rolled in, I sometimes caught myself saying 'just like another Friday night in West Philadelphia.' The wounds and nationalities of the patients are different, but the feelings of helplessness, despair and loss are the same. In Iraq, soldiers die for freedom, for honor, for their country and for their buddies. Here in Philadelphia, they die without honor, without purpose, for no country, for no one."

Now how can you hear that about your country and a great city and young people being killed, and not have some sense of anger? You should have a sense of anger about problems not solved, conditions not improved, and people not helped.

The question is -- and I think this is where (President) Obama began to get a little off the mark -- what do you do with the anger? We have to move from anger to courage, from blaming to solving. But if we want to save lives instead of being angry about their loss, we have to have real courage. As Lincoln said, we have to think anew.

Now, let me say, the rest of what I'm going to say today -- if you think the current system is working -- what I'm going to say is far too bold and far too willing to change what's happening.

But is anybody really prepared to defend the current system? And I think it will be very hard to go around this country and find anyone willing to stand up and suggest that the current system is working, particularly for the poorest and weakest of Americans.

The tragic truth is that the current system is not working because of two topics we don't like to talk about: bad culture and bad government. And bad culture and bad government intersect to reinforce each other, to create human and financial cost beyond anything we could have imagined a quarter-century ago.

The tragic truth is that at the end of segregation, the great moment of opportunity for African-Americans, we had a failure of government and a failure of culture. The rise of big bureaucracy in the Great Society starting in 1965 combined with the rise of a counterculture which despised middle-class values and which taught the poor patterns and habits of destruction -- and those two patterns of bad bureaucracy reinforcing bad culture have led to a disaster.

Charles Murray captured part of this in an extraordinary book in the mid-1980s called "Losing Ground," which was the seminal work in being able to pass welfare reform, in which he demonstrated that the patterns we were building were actively destructive of the poor.

Marvin Olasky extended that critique in a brilliant book written in 1994 called "The Tragedy of American Compassion." Olasky outlined the values and principles of the great 19th-century social reformers, who all believed that helping people out of poverty required tough love and work requirements. He cited reformer after reformer who condemned the compassionate wealthy who wanted to give people something for nothing. The reformers of the 19th century were convinced that giving away money subsidized bad behavior and encouraged people to remain dependent, and in many cases, to remain addicted to drugs and to alcohol.

The modern redistributionist model of bureaucratic welfare was an outgrowth of a leftist social critique of society, according to Olasky. He documented the leftist desire to create a right to money without effort. He cited advocate after advocate on the 20th-century left who insisted that a large underclass of permanently poor people was acceptable, and that it was cultural imperialism to insist that they acquire habits of discipline and self-management in order to lead full lives as independently productive citizens.

"The Tragedy of American Compassion" made clear that the fight over welfare reform was, at its heart, a cultural and moral fight over the nature of being American and the requirements of a full and healthy citizenship. Understood on those terms, the existing welfare system was indefensible as bad government and bad culture. It was bad government and bad culture combined in a way that crippled the lives of people.

In 1996, we reformed the welfare system, but we did not change the cultural values which were destroying opportunities and crippling lives, nor did we uproot the destructive institutions of bad government in education, urban bureaucracy, and tax policy. The bad cultural signals are routine, they're pervasive in the mass media. They surround us. They're in songs, they're on television, they're in radio, and they are really destructive of sound behavior and of the opportunity to get out of poverty.

You don't have a community that creates wealth, that ends up prosperous and safe and gives kids a better future, if everyone is taught to stand around demanding that somebody else pay for everything. And this is a core challenge.

Should this be a country in which every person learns to work, every person learns to save, every person learns to have a better future, and, by the way, is therefore responsible for working, saving, and creating a better future?

Or is this a country where you shouldn't have to do all those things because it's too hard, and someone should take care of you? In which case, the question becomes: Who's the someone, and why do you think they'll stay here? It's a fundamental question.

This is a cultural problem, and I want to start with that. Because ... if you want to replace a world of poverty with a world of prosperity, it begins with fundamental cultural change. And if you want to reinforce that cultural change, you want to design government policies that reward the right behaviors and make it expensive to have the wrong behaviors.

This is not complicated, but I want to repeat it. The first step is to decide the culture that you want. And if you want a culture of prosperity, you have to establish the values of that culture. You then have to redesign government so it is rewarding those who follow the culture of prosperity, and making it expensive for those who in fact are determined to reject being part of the world of prosperity. Because you want to send signals that say this is the right way to go, this is the wrong way to go. This is the heart of how healthy societies operate. It's what Bill Cosby in many ways has been trying to say both in his speeches and in his recent book.

We need bold, courageous solutions that dare to be politically incorrect.

(President) Obama quoted Faulkner, but he would have done well to have quoted more from Faulkner, especially Faulkner's 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Faulkner at that point describes the importance of faith and the importance of optimism. He says:

"The poet's, the writer's duty, is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure, by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to helping him endure and prevail."

So how do we endure and prevail?

There are seven areas. Stopping crime and ensuring public safety; replacing the destructive culture of adolescence with the return to young adulthood; creating a new dynamic of jobs, health, and wealth creation for all Americans; using modern technology and modern science to turn disabilities into capabilities; replacing cities of poverty with cities of prosperity; ensuring true happiness and a true citizenship with a real right to pursue happiness for all Americans; and creating a 21st-century system of law enforcement and appropriate punishment with a decisively new model of prisons.

I have given you a large and sweeping overview. I hope this is the beginning of a genuine dialogue. I think it would be tremendous if (President) Obama would be willing to actually talk about solutions, not merely the analysis. How would you truly help Native American reservations? How would you truly rethink the process by which Detroit has become a disaster? And how would you learn the lessons of economic growth around the planet? And apply them to try to create, once again in America, the fastest growing, most dynamic, and most entrepreneurial society in the world?

And I think that we should engage (President Obama) in a positive way. Not to score points. Not to try to prove he's wrong. But to say, "Let's agree in principle that every American is endowed by their Creator with the right to pursue happiness." It is the interest of every American to reach out and make sure that right is truly made real.

I think this is a topic well worth spending the rest of the year on. I hope it is one that can lead to the belief that together, we can create real change. And that real change can lead to a dramatically better American future.

Note: These abbreviated remarks were adapted from a speech Newt Gingrich delivered at the American Enterprise Institute on March 27, 2008, entitled,"The Obama Challenge: What Is the Right Change to Help All Americans Pursue Happiness and Create Prosperity?"

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Newt Gingrich.

Part of complete coverage on
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2311 GMT (0711 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend