March 29, 2014

Paul Ryan Leverages White Voter Hostility to Black Americans

Paul Ryan Caricature
Paul Ryan Caricature (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

Paul Ryan made an appearance on conservative Bill Bennet's show and let fly with the following:

"We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."

This is party leader Paul Ryan, advancing the idea of blacks (albeit in coded language) as possessing deficient culture and producing generations of men lacking in work ethic.  Predictably, he got pushback, with plenty of people on the left calling him out for this language and some plainly calling him a racist.  Conservatives came to his defense, some citing Barack Obama to make their case, as the American Thinker blog did, using selectively cut sentences stitched together to make their point. Hardly convincing. A little rooting around also reveals that its not the first time Ryan has given the impression that inner-city poverty is linked tothe supposed cultural deficiencies of black Americans.

Ryan has of course backtracked from his comments on Bennet's show, issuing the following statement:

After reading the transcript of yesterday morning’s interview, it is clear that I was inarticulate about the point I was trying to make. I was not implicating the culture of one community—but of society as a whole.

Sorry Paul.  I say bollox on that.  You said what you said and you meant what you meant.  The PublicHealth blog summed up the paternity of this line of thinking nicely:

the claim that black people have “bad culture”, may be genetically defective, and do not have “normal” “middle class” values about the merits of “hard work”, is a simple channeling of legendary Republican strategist Lee Atwater’s tactics for mobilizing white voters by leveraging their hostility to black Americans.

Whether it's Paul Ryan or Barack Obama suggesting it, I reject the theory of deficient culture, work ethic or other such deficits ascribed to African Americans. From a historical perspective, I find it bitterly ironic that a population whose labor was stolen under threat of violence for two hundred years to build this country is denigrated as lazy. That scurrilous claim was made even during slavery itself. It's a vicious stereotype that continues to be used to ascribe laziness to African Americans writ large. 
There is also the matter of context. The reality is that when Paul Ryan advances the idea that blacks have a deficient work ethic or possess deficient cultural values, he's talking to a political base of white voters on the right who largely view blacks through this same contemptuous lens. He advanced these ideas while a guest on a white conservative radio show that commands a white conservative audience. He's also speaking as a party leader of the GOP, a party which often engages in coded language and political messaging that is both overtly and covertly hostile to African American voters. He speaks as a leader for a party which has championed partisan so called vote integrity initiatives like voter ID and restrictions on voter registration, which are widely (and correctly) perceived by African Americans as partisan system rigging intended to diminish their voting power at the polls (if only at the margins). So when he uses this kind of language, as a leader of a party widely perceived (with justification) by African Americans as hostile to their community, its no surprise that his language is called out as a racially stereotypical dog whistle.

Even if you accept the American Thinker's take on Obama's comments in his book "Dreams of My Father" as fundamentally the same in content to what Ryan said, context applies here as well. Like him or not, Obama simply has far more moral authority to address the issue than Paul Ryan does among African Americans. Its an issue he can address and no black person will for an instant perceive him to be stereotyping African Americans writ large as lazy, but rather talking about the choices of INDIVIDUALS. Neither Paul Ryan nor the GOP at large, benefits from any such presumption within the African American community.

Enhanced by Zemanta