Opinion

The Great Debate

Ryan and the code words of race

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.”

Is Obama good for black people?

Is President Barack Obama good for black people?  While Obama heads into Election Day with strong support from black voters, some black intellectuals are pressing that question.

In a reproachful op-ed article in the Sunday New York Times, flanked by a large drawing of a black man literally muzzled by an Obama campaign placard, Columbia professor Fredrick C. Harris proposes that “black elites” and voters have effectively conspired to mute criticism of the president because of his race. This argument is plain wrong.

Obama’s presidency, Harris argues, marks “the decline” of a politics devoted to “challenging racial inequality” — a failure facilitated by black America itself. “Black elites” and black constituencies, Harris asserts, have capitulated to a president who does little for them — simply for the “pride” of “having a black family in the White House.”

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