Ryan and the code words of race

By Suzanne Garment
April 10, 2014

It’s official. The House of Representatives has passed the federal budget for fiscal years 2015 through 2023 that was submitted by the House Budget Committee — a.k.a. the Ryan budget, after the Budget Committee’s chairman, Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — and the troops are on the march.

The subject line of one e-mail from the Democratic Campaign Committee’s rapid response team is: “1,000,000 Strong Against the Ryan Budget.” They are soliciting signatures to demand rejection of “any Paul Ryan budget” that “puts Big Oil and billionaire tax breaks before the 47 percent.”  There will be an “important debate,” says Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), ranking member on the Budget Committee, about the Ryan budget’s “lopsided set of priorities.”

Van Hollen is right — there will be a debate. But as we saw in the recent eruption over Ryan’s remarks about the absence of a work ethic in the nation’s inner cities, the debate will be obscured and twisted by the issue of race — as it has been for the past 50 years. The conversation will be marked by familiar code words and formulas.  It will do nothing to heal the endlessly searing wound that the Ryan controversy exposed in the individuals who bear it or make the wound more real to those who don’t.

Earlier this month, Ryan’s committee accompanied the initial release of its budget resolution with a report, titled The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later. The document was — well, skeptical about the past 50 years of federal anti-poverty policies. Soon after the report was published, in an interview with conservative commentator Bill Bennett, Ryan remarked that Bennett’s “buddies Charles Murray or Bob Putnam over at Harvard” had written about a “tailspin of culture in our inner cities, in particular of men not working or even thinking about working.”

Representative Barbara Lee (D.-Calif.), a member of both the House Budget Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus, opened the assault on Ryan by calling his statement a “thinly veiled racial attack.”

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, weighing in, gave it to us unvarnished: “How could anyone suggest that it was a racial dog-whistle? Why,” Krugman said sarcastically, Ryan “even cited the work of serious scholars — people like Charles Murray, most famous for arguing that blacks are genetically inferior to whites.”

More soberly, Krugman explained that Ryan “said what he said” because American conservatism is still driven by claims that liberals take taxpayers’ money and give it to “Those People.” Indeed,” said Krugman, “race is the Rosetta Stone” that decodes “otherwise incomprehensible aspects of U.S. politics.”

Other commentators provided nuance. In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates noted that what Ryan said “is not very far” from what President Barack Obama, in launching his My Brother’s Keeper initiative on behalf of young black males, has also assumed: “African-American men, in particular, are lacking the virtues of family, hard work, and citizenship.” This shared assumption, said Coates, “makes all our uncomfortable truths,” like the income gap, “tolerable.”

In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait respectfully submitted that Coates was engaged in a “fallacy” by “conflating Paul Ryan with Barack Obama.” Coates answered, also respectfully, that even Obama and other progressives express an “entrenched belief” that “discussions of American racism should begin somewhere between the Moynihan Report and the Detroit riots” rather than with “two-and-a-half centuries of degradation and humiliation.”

Columnist Charles Blow of the New York Times noted that poverty, far from belonging to a particular race and culture, is almost as prevalent in rural areas and small towns as in inner cities.  It affects not just a persistently malformed minority subculture but 54 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 for at least a year of their lives.

Burrowing deeper, Brian Beutler of Salon speculated that Ryan may have been genuine — scarily so — when he protested that race “never even occurred to me.” Ryan, Beutler wrote, may have “fully internalized a framing of social politics that was deliberately crafted” by political operatives like Lee Atwater “to appeal to white racists without regressing to the uncouth language of explicit racism.”

The problem with this conversation is the completeness with which we have heard it before — not just in echoes and adumbrations but almost in haec verba. African-American poverty is, or is not, increasing relative to white poverty. It is, or is not, increasingly persistent.  It is strongly, or not so strongly, associated with a particular family structure. Government attempts to alleviate it have, or have not, enjoyed significant successes.

It is not that the facts about these matters are unimportant. It is that they are too complicated to force a specific answer to what is perhaps the most important domestic question facing us: Whether the particular degrees and types of inequality in today’s society, whether based on race, class, or gender, should or should not be cause for alarm.

As it happens, that is the question most recently on the mind of Murray, whose mention by Ryan was cited by Krugman as a smoking gun.

It is not hard to see why Murray, with his writings about the relationships among genetics, race and intelligence, has become a smoking gun. And once you become a smoking gun, it is difficult to stop smoking.

I worked for Daniel Patrick Moynihan on foreign policy almost 15 years after the release of his Moynihan Report on African-American family structure. He still bore the marks that the experience made on his reputation and career.

But Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart, is not about race; it deals with something much more potentially explosive —  white Americans in two communities who are rapidly becoming two separate nations.

In one community, adults have become increasingly work-driven, family-oriented and church-going. Through their marriages to one another, these trends are powerfully reinforced. In the other community, with equal speed, adults have become increasingly averse to work, family and organized religion; the decline of marriage among them has exacerbated these trends.

Why is this happening? Murray has his theories, based on culture and government policies. Murray’s critics have different theories, based on economic dislocations. What does not seem deniable is that the changes are taking place. The country’s increasing income inequality is accompanied by social changes that may reinforce the development and make it much harder to reverse.

The debate over the Ryan budget will be another debate about race, and it will be a conversation that we could have had 50 years ago. Meanwhile, the country is experiencing profound changes that are only tangentially related to race and that it will not help us to try to assimilate to categories based on race.

To ask for a shift in the conversation is not to say that the wounds of race have been healed. It is only to say that we may not be able to heal them and, while we try to do so, we are busy inflicting other, consequential wounds on ourselves and avoiding a discussion of what, if anything, we can do about them.


PHOTO (TOP): House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland March 15, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Barbara Lee and Paul Ryan are seen in a combination file photo.  REUTERS/Larry Downing and Jonathan Ernst

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Charles Murray.  Courtesy of American Enterprise Institute

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Daniel Patrick Moynihan, head-and-shoulders portrait, speaking behind microphones, gesturing with his hands, probably at a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, March 25, 1976. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/Marion S. Trikosko


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