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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If you are a republican you are required to say these things. Your base demands it. And your base has been led to these beliefs by fox news, Glenn Beck, Rush, and the whole right wing media. Oh, and lets not forget who finances it, the Koch brothers.

Posted by lysergic | Report as abusive

Having been born in a Latin American country I have experience instances of racial discrimination on account of my dark skin color even though my facial features are Caucasian due to my family’s pedigree.-Maybe we are all susceptible to such differences in physical appearance.
I have felt it while say looking at a mongoloid or other
disabled individual. Burn victims are interesting too.
The pie is shrinking for most people and it’s easy to blame and strike at the most vulnerable in society. The rich and powerful are always out of sight.

Posted by justice49 | Report as abusive

I’m not so certain the base has been led there by ‘the whole right wing media plus the Koch brothers’, much less that the bases accepts these as truths.

What is certain is Ryan has proposed a budget.

What if, instead of muddying the water, we consider the committee’s budget based on its merits? Or does anyone seriously believe we can continue merrily down the path of the past, with bliss and ignorance, sans real world consequences for all? Anyway, it seems to me Congressman Ryan is trying to do the right thing despite the fact it will have consequences for him, personally vice his political career.

Personally, I applaud his effort. In part because it validates his selection as a running mate by Gov. Romney, a man with considerable experience and accomplishments. Also, in part, however, it’s because it feels like he’s trying to the right thing. In other words, in my book he gets an A for effort.

Now it’s up to others to vote their conscience.

Posted by jbeech | Report as abusive

The Ryan budget has no merit, other than to increase the divide of those in poverty and those of wealth. It takes America from a nation of investing in infrastructure, people, and quality of life to that of a third world nation. It takes us from growing a civilized society, to a society with no core bond.

The trouble with the work ethic is not with those in poverty, whether it is inner city or rural (most federal support goes to red states), but the understanding of those in poverty, and the work ethic and values of the job creators.

Those in poverty for the most part are the elderly, children, infirmed, disabled, or have mental disorders. And again, the others remaining are the working poor, those who work but are not rewarded for their work.

It is the job creators who have disincentivised the work ethic for the past forty years in providing high income earners with inflationary and productivity increases, while at the same time reducing hourly wages and times, not providing inflationary or productivity increases, reducing benefits, and encouraging hourly workers to apply for government subsidies to socialize their cost of doing business.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

The red states, which are white for the most part, are the big welfare states. The red states recieve more federal help per capita than blue states. This may be in the form of welfare or jobs programs or other subsidizes. It’s not hard to pretend that you have a preferencial economic process when someone keeps dumping money into it without end and without the need for competitiveness. So, we can focus on the blacks, but they are not really the takers. The takers inhabit the lands that the conservative control. There policies are what drag us down. Again, people in blue states pay more per capita in federal taxes than they take in in federal benefits. The red states take in more benefits than they pay in to federal taxes. If the blacks are the issue, that would be reversed. In fact, maybe we should do that, reverse it. If not to help out the poor in northern cities, then to make what Paul Ryan says have at least an ounce of truth.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Professional victims will always find a way to try and claim people they disagree with are racists. Now even to the point where they make up new definitions of words to claim “coded” racism. Nothing you say is ever safe from these people because they will always, without a doubt, find some way to claim something you said is coded racist/sexist/etc.

I find intellectually lazy people like to pursue this line of work because they are unable to actually articulate a position and engage in adult discussion on complex topics. Much easier to just “YOU RACIST” and expect the opposition to bow down to your pathetic tactics else be labeled a racist even further.

Posted by BonnyBrown | Report as abusive

So instead of addressing the realities of life in the inner cities, the “esteemed” congresswoman Lee would rather just start calling people racists. I guess it is easier than facing a reality that she cannot argue doesn’t exist. Perhaps instead of sugar coating it with supposed code words, we should just lay it out as it really is and talk about the culture that Sharpton, Jackson, et al have nurtured within black America and that has made them very wealthy and corrupt.

Also, please don’t forget that big oil and billionaires are already paying almost all the taxes. How is it that people can, with a straight face, stand and talk about how evil this group is when they subsidize or pay for everything the 47% gets from the government, either in outright handouts or provided services.

Posted by gcf1965 | Report as abusive

“I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.” Benjamin Franklin
Our more welfare for the poor philosophy has only resulted in more people on welfare. Look at the numbers of people on food stamps now vs. 10 or 20 years ago http://www.businessinsider.com/number-of -americans-food-stamps-2012-9

Posted by TOTL | Report as abusive

You are not hard to decode.
When Whites are on the dole, it is because of the collapse of industries.
When Blacks are on the dole, it is because, “Blacks are, on average, the least intelligent and most violence-prone of racial groups. This is why their social pathologies have been so persistent and resistant to amelioration.”

Never mind that your hare-brained “analysis” is debunked by even the least competent scholars… If the problem were really as simple as you say, it wouldn’t be hard to fix.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

jbeech, we have a 2 year budget agreement between Ryan and Patty Murray. So why would Ryan propose something that is totally bogus? How about to please the base. And all the awful racist comments posted by republicans, like the one posted just below your initial post are due to fox, Kochs, etc. It’s called the southern strategy and the republicans have been preaching this hate for almost 40 years. Wise up.

Posted by lysergic | Report as abusive

jbeech, we have a 2 year budget agreement between Ryan and Patty Murray. So why would Ryan propose something that is totally bogus? How about to please the base. And all the awful racist comments posted by republicans, like the one posted just below your initial post are due to fox, Kochs, etc. It’s called the southern strategy and the republicans have been preaching this hate for almost 40 years. Wise up.

Posted by lysergic | Report as abusive

So lets see here, in 1863 slavery was abolished in the USA. By 1900, about 40 years later, that generation of people would still be persecuted, prosecuted by an unfair law and generally treated grossly unfairly. By 1940, their kids, now adults would be fighting a war for their country, the largest war, in which even within their military ranks, they were treated disrespectfully like second class men, often looked over for higher ranking positions. And when they got home, even worse, still in many states, men of honor who fight for their country, could sometimes pass by signs that tell them they cannot eat at a restaurant or use the washrooms because they were not equal, they were not human. By 1980, 40 years later, the kids of those kids, now adults would experience a much better existence in the USA. Yes, they still wouldn’t get the highest paying jobs in the most respectable companies, but things were changing, they were getting decent paying wages, closing the gaps. Poverty was rampant, but their were silver linings in the clouds, there was some folks who broke through the poverty, and money began to speak more than race. Their parents were not rich, but they wanted to be, they strived to be. Even with the huge disadvantage, of not having rich parents to guide them, to send them to the best schools, to set them up with high paying jobs, to help them network with other wealthy folks, they still persevered. By 2014, about another 40 years later, the kids of their kids’ kids, now adults, would have experienced an age of more folks breaking the poverty barriers, much less discrimination, the internet age where a business could prosper regardless of the human face behind it, and where someone looking similar to them, an intelligent lawyer with enough determination, was voted in to be the leader of the country for 8 years.

Posted by Zymbat | Report as abusive

…yet folks who commented above would prefer to erase this history, and make a judgment on race as only a current phenomenon.

Posted by Zymbat | Report as abusive

Blaming Sharpton, et al., is easy. It’s also intellectually lazy.

He and his crowd can do what they do because they serve the purpose of an official/unofficial anti-white agenda. If they didn’t have this approval, they’d be given no platform whatsoever. Sharpton would be the outcast he deserves to be, with his history of racial incitement, financial shenanigans, and “hate” crime hoaxes.

It’s illuminating to observe that blacks as a whole did much better in segregated, pre-“Civil Rights” America, in terms of crime rates, illegitimacy, and other social pathologies. This was because the black “talented tenth” remained within their community to lead it and guide it. After desegregation, they left for greener pastures among whites, which, from a personal standpoint, is understandable.

This had the effect of decapitating the black community. Combined with the promotion of grievance politics, in which all black woes are laid at the feet of whites, it descended into the violent, dysfunctional mess we see today, with horrible consequences for the country as a whole.

Posted by Zeken | Report as abusive

Good post Zeken.

Posted by gcf1965 | Report as abusive

I would almost think you were two people posting under the same name.
I actually agree with your assessment of the fact of “leaving the ghetto” being the only option discussed for successful black people, resulting in a brain (and financial) drain from the ghettos. How do you reconcile this with the following comment you made above?

“Blacks are, on average, the least intelligent and most violence-prone of racial groups. This is why their social pathologies have been so persistent and resistant to amelioration.”

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

Paul Ryan should address the asymmetric national security issue of outdated emergency evacuation protocol. The NFL and the NCAA won’t touch it due to the catch-22.

http://www.agsaf.org/congressman-paul-ry an-r-wi-deflects-concerns-about-stadium- evacuation-protocol

Posted by sonofsaf | Report as abusive

The fact that the Ryan budget takes away from education
while giving to the military speaks volumes to how serious
he is about fixing these problems.

Posted by notnews | Report as abusive

Should the titanic scorn of the Ryan budget heap scorn upon him too ? Whether it should or shouldn’t it probably will. Which is a crying shame, because it was the product of dedicated effort and irreplaceable time , if you will . Most of all- he believed in it . If it is so bad, what ails him ? Since his critics think it’s that bad , he must be too–why don’t they just hang him high ?

Let’s face it: a lot of that scorn had a jump-start called ” contempt ” Those who think he’s contemptable budget or no budget , are enjoying this oportunity .

I surely can understand why it seemed unfair ; even cruel, as a matter of fact DOA . I wonder why it passed ? It probably is Republican pride .

To hear someone like Nancy Pelosi tell it,or ranking member Chris Van Hollen, this budget is a one of cruel deprivation, with no room for repairing infastructure, scientific research, aid to programs like Headstart ( which btw, never did work out -look it up )slashing programs like SNAP ,making it harder for young people to get the right schooling,giving special consideration to the wealthy ,rather than the poor or middle class ;yada -yada ,and so forth . All kinds of similar predictions have been made before under comparable circumstances and too often those predictions were overblown and didn’t manifest themselves to a notable extent . I think of all the fear and predictions that came before the 2013 gov. shutdown, and the “fiscal Cliff ” warnings. Boy–were we disappointed ! Nothing to excite us after all.

In defense of Mr. Ryan, it is posible to have another take on him. First of all, realize he’s been the party’s undisputable leader when it comes to federal budget issues. The reader might wonder why this is so credible. It is interesting that , in fact , he has been the ONLY leader . Where and who are the others ? Wash DC is suposed to be a hotbed of brilliant and innovative talent, but only one person has had the guts and brains to compose a solid alternative to the president’s spendfest counterpart – a lesson on how to spend more money than you have , is Congressman Ryan. He has been the only one willing to stick his neck out try ; seriously. If courage is good character , he has it .

Posted by firestorm | Report as abusive

Garment holds the A.B. from Radcliffe College, the M.A. from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, the PhD in political science from Harvard University, the J.D. and a master of laws degree in taxation from Georgetown University so exactly what she knows about work-driven, family-oriented and church-going subculture or those of whatever race are averse to work, family and organized religion; the decline of marriage is unclear. What is clear is that being unfamiliar with both groups she cannot fill in gaps in what is really a very narrow world view by relying on Cliff’s Notes cribbing from Charles Murray since he is equally in the dark.

Posted by theDecembrist | Report as abusive

The joke used to be that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. The new version will be a Democrat is a Republican who had his unemployment benefits ended.

“..It is not just a coincidence that tax cuts for the rich have preceded both the 1929 and 2007 depressions. The Revenue acts of 1926 and 1928 worked exactly as the Republican Congresses that pushed them through promised. The dramatic reductions in taxes on the upper income brackets and estates of the wealthy did indeed result in increased savings and investment. However, overinvestment (by 1929 there were over 600 automobile manufacturing companies in the USA) caused the depression that made the rich, and most everyone else, ultimately much poorer.

Since 1969 there has been a tremendous shift in the tax burdens away from the rich and onto the middle class. Corporate income tax receipts, whose incidence falls entirely on the owners of corporations, were 4% of GDP then and are now less than 1%. During that same period, payroll tax rates as percent of GDP have increased dramatically. The overinvestment problem caused by the reduction in taxes on the wealthy is exacerbated by the increased tax burden on the middle class. While overinvestment creates more factories, housing and shopping centers; higher payroll taxes reduces the purchasing power of middle-class consumers….”

Posted by lottopol | Report as abusive

If the GOP were not the party of the 1% this budget would reflect the People not the Greedy bastards Koch et al ( not pounced cook)The rich have bought the GOP and The political process. God help us …

Posted by DAVUSAMRMY | Report as abusive

The tragedy is he does not know he is using code words.

Posted by Bernie777 | Report as abusive