Let’s Talk about Cliven Bundy, Donald Sterling, and Racists in America

For weeks, I did the best I could to ignore Cliven Bundy, which wasn’t easy. Conservative media outlets were busy lionizing the Nevada rancher for refusing to comply with the law and instead attempting to get his way through armed confrontation. This dovetails nicely with the efforts of some on the radical right to portray American elections as illegitimate and to hold up armed insurrection as the bulwark of the Republic – which is always laughably absurd right up until it isn’t. Naturally, the National Review compared Mr. Bundy to Mahatma Gandhi.

(c) Peter Stevens

(c) Peter Stevens

The Bundy Wagon, however, became rapidly derailed when someone put a microphone in front of him and asked him about race. As it turns out, Cliven Bundy is a bit of a racist:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.” (The New York Times)

The left was quick to crucify Bundy and the right was quick to look for distance. Even Sean Hannity, who had spent the last few weeks being visibly excited about the prospect of a replay of Ruby Ridge was quick to denounce Bundy. Some Bundy supporters have tried to press the claim that his racism actually has nothing to do with his land use grievances, which is true. The problem is that when you decide to build your argument around lionizing people you just met, you can’t then turn around and cry foul when your fortunes are tied to what we later learn about them.

Bundy’s a racist. You shouldn’t have made him your poster child. Better luck next time.

The whole incident has, however, raised a perennial question in American politics: are Republicans racist? Not surprisingly, Republicans bristle at that suggestion. Liberals, on the other hand, have been having a field day. The New Yorker, for example, ran a satirical piece that quoted a fictional GOP operative:

There is no excuse for offensive racist comments like the ones Cliven Bundy made when there are so many subtler ways of making the exact same point.

The Daily Beast, with tongue equally firmly in cheek, observed:

The revolting comments. The emails. The jokes. The posters. The T-shirts. The ghostwriters. It’s not like it’s a pattern or something…Really. Stop taking these little things out of context and acting like they constitute a pattern. They just don’t. OK?

And, in truth, there is a pattern of racial insensitivity and animus on the American right. For dyed-in-the-wool liberals, this isn’t something that needs a lot of explaining: if you already disagree with your political adversaries, there isn’t a whole lot of cognitive dissonance in just piling up accusations of bad behavior at their door. But from the outside, it’s weird: there is nothing in conservative fiscal policy or in small-government principles that is particularly resonant with racist ideology. In fact, for decades the Dixiecrats managed to hold the polar opposite of those positions and be just as racist as anyone.

Conservatives, as you might imagine, are quick to make exactly that point. Strom Thurmond, after all, ran for President as a segregationist Democrat and George Wallace, the Democratic governor of Alabama, was the man Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as a ‘vicious racist’ in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

But that speech was over fifty years ago and Strom Thurmond died a Republican. There are racists everywhere in America: just this week it turned out that the Los Angeles Clippers are owned by a racist. He also has a history of giving to Democratic candidates. Growing up in the Northeast, I’ve met a lot of liberal racists. George W. Bush described this sort of pernicious prejudice quite well in a favorite phrase: “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Remember when Joe Biden described then-Senator Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”? Harry Reid had a similar slip-up that year.

But the uncomfortable truth is that there is only one party where racist ideology, however veiled, can be part of the formula for political success. Tom Tancrado, for example, ran for President primarily on his credentials as a racist and a nativist; Rand Paul hired a Southern-secessionist as a staffer; and when the Heritage Foundation needed a report on the impact of immigration on America, they hired Jason Richwine, whose dissertation had argued that Hispanics will never be a smart as whites – though we’ll probably, Richwine assures us, outperform blacks.

Then there was that time Newt Gingrich referred to Spanish as “the language of the ghetto.” Even the former Massachusetts, and would-be future New Hampshire Senator, Scott Brown got in on the action when he made his opponent’s ethnic identity a central component of his political attacks on Elizabeth Warren.

The irony is that for decades the right has made a fetish out of their opposition to political correctness. But if political correctness means anything, it must include an unwillingness to face truths that are uncomfortable to say out loud. Time and time again, when a conservative voice in America makes a point that is later decried as racist, the anti-PC police come out of the woodwork and accuse liberals of trying to stifle debate. But when the shoe is on the other foot, Republicans are quick to minimize the effects of racial animus. Liberals, they say, are playing the race card.

It’s not the world’s most consistent position, but at least it is progress. After all, yesterday’s bigots didn’t even have the decency to deny their positions.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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