NEWPORT, N.H. — Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are fending off accusations that they made racially tinged remarks about African-Americans and public assistance.
Gingrich accused the news media Friday of taking a comment he made earlier in the week at a New Hampshire town hall meeting out of context. He said there that if he were invited to address the NAACP annual convention, he was prepared to tell the civil rights organization why "the African-American community should demand paychecks, and not be satisfied with food stamps."
"Now there's no neighborhood I know of in America where if you went around and asked people, 'Would you rather your children had food stamps or paychecks?' you wouldn't end up with a majority saying they'd rather have a paycheck," Gingrich said, according to a transcript written from a video of the event. "And so, I'm prepared, 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 with food stamps."
Some African-American leaders and civil rights group considered Gingrich's words racially insensitive. They've noted that Gingrich often refers to President Barack Obama as the "food stamp president."
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"It is a shame that the former speaker feels that these types of inaccurate, divisive statements are in any way helpful to our country," NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said in statement Friday. "The majority of people using food stamps are not African-American, and most people using food stamps have a job."
According to 2010 Department of Agriculture data, 34 percent of food stamp recipients were white, 22 percent were African-American, 16 percent were Hispanic, 4 percent were Native American and 3 percent were Asian. (The remaining 20 percent didn't indicate their race/ethnicity.)
Jealous added: "We invited Speaker Gingrich to attend our annual convention several times when he was speaker of the House, but he declined to join us. If he's invited again, I hope that he would come, with the intention to unite rather than divide."
R.C. Hammond, a Gingrich spokesman, said Gingrich was speaking generally, making the case that, unlike other Republicans, he'd be more inclusive and would deliver his message to any ethnic community in America.
Gingrich said Friday at a gun-manufacturing plant in Newport that he'd read a transcript of his remarks and concluded that he'd said nothing racially offensive.
"I think you'd have to be nuts to read those two paragraphs and conclude anything except that I was saying that every young American deserves the right to pursue happiness," he said. "Every neighborhood in America deserves a chance to have paychecks instead of food stamps. And I was saying something which I thought for a Republican candidate would come as a refreshing positive, which is I would be happy to go to the NAACP convention and talk about creating greater opportunities for all Americans."
Gingrich said that Rep. Allen West of Florida, one of two African-American Republicans in the House of Representatives, and former Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., an African-American who was a member of Gingrich's House leadership team when he was speaker, would vouch that his remarks weren't insensitive.
Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a tea party-supported African-American House freshman, criticized Gingrich's remarks Friday. That could be problematic for Gingrich as he and the other GOP presidential candidates are vying for Scott's endorsement before the Palmetto State's GOP primary Jan. 21.
Scott, appearing on CBS, called Gingrich's remarks a "preposterous comment as it relates to what the African-American community would like to have."
NAACP officials and National Urban League President Marc Morial also took after Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, for allegedly singling out African-Americans when he talked about public assistance programs during a campaign stop last Sunday in Sioux City, Iowa.
In a video clip on CBS News' website, Santorum appears to say: "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 and provide for themselves and their families."
Santorum vigorously denies using the phrase "black people."
"I looked at that, and I didn't say that," he told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. "If you look at it, what I started to say is a word and then sort of changed and it sort of — blah — came out. And people said I said 'black." I didn't."
Morial wasn't convinced. He issued a statement two days ago accusing Santorum of "perpetuating a thoroughly false and destructive racial stereotype in a desperate attempt to score political points."
"He is appealing to the lowest common denominator within the electorate and quite frankly should be ashamed of himself," the statement said.
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