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Is anyone surprised that Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has become a Fox News hero because of his stand-off with the Bureau of Land Management, turns out to be a stone-cold racist? Not the kind where we might disagree about whether he’s actually a racist, but a lazy-blacks-had-it-better-when-they-were-slaves kind of racist. Conservatives may be wondering how they keep falling in with these kind of people.
I’ll solve that mystery in a moment, but in case you don’t have access to the New York Times, reporter Adam Nagourney went to one of Bundy’s daily (and now lightly attended) press conferences and received some wisdom from Mr. Bundy:
“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.”
Bundy apparently did not appreciate the irony of this argument coming from a guy who has become famous because he refuses to pay for a government benefit he’s getting. Some of Bundy’s Republican supporters, like Senators Rand Paul and Dean Heller, immediately released statements condemning Bundy’s comments, and you can bet that Bundy will soon disappear from Fox News, where over the last few weeks he’s had so much air time on so many different programs that he could almost demand that Roger Ailes pay him a salary.
It should be said that smart conservatives knew from the beginning that Bundy’s cause was not one they ought to be embracing, and many kept their distance. The fundamental fact of the case is that Bundy was stealing from the federal government. Whether you think the government shouldn’t own so much land in Nevada, or whether you think grazing fees are unfair, you can’t just decide, as Bundy did, that you’ll send your cattle on to government land to graze, then refuse to pay the fees. That’s what Bundy has been doing for a couple of decades, because, as he said in another interview, “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”
So why on earth did any Republicans get behind him? You could say it was reflexive anti-government sentiment; anybody who’s fighting the feds is OK with them. But that’s not really it. As a number of people pointed out (see here or here), if Cliven Bundy were black, he wouldn’t have become a right-wing hero, with all the loving coverage on Fox News and hundreds of gun-toting government-haters traveling hundreds of miles to brandish their weapons at his side. The reason he was embraced by so many on the right is that he was their kind of people, One of Us. And it shows the perils of identity politics.
Race is a part of that, but not all of it. When conservatives looked at Bundy, they saw not just a white guy, but also a cowboy, and that particular brand of character who waves an American flag while fighting the American government (in his case by stealing public property). And they saw lots of guns, which also told them he was their kind of people. Everything about him told them he was their kind of guy. And I’m sure if liberals had thought about it, they would have said, “I’ll bet this guy has some colorful ideas about race.” Conservatives would have protested that that’s a vicious and unfair stereotype. But in this case it turned out to be true, and how.
One couldn’t help but be reminded of the mini-controversy over “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson back in December, who got in trouble for some comments that were quite similar to Bundy’s. In Robertson’s case, he didn’t reach all the way back to slavery. He just said blacks were happier during the Jim Crow days of his youth: “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once…they’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.” Sarah Palin admitted that she didn’t even know what Robertson had said even as she was loudly defending him against unfair liberal attacks. Why? Well, because he too was her kind of people — Southern, Christian, gun-loving, liberal-hater. What else do you need to know?
As Cliven Bundy shows, you need to know more than that. Obviously, we shouldn’t expect people to run extensive background checks on every newly minted media figure. But if you’re going to construct your politics around defining who “us” and “them” is, don’t be surprised when your new allies have some rather sharp beliefs about “them.”
This episode is yet another reminder that despite what you might hear in some precincts of right wing media, racism against white people is not, in fact, the only remaining racism in America. And this brings us to Justice John Roberts and the recent SCOTUS decision striking down a challenge to Michigan’s law banning state universities from considering race in admissions. As I’ve argued, that decision was defensible on the merits. But the broader problem is that Roberts’ decisions in recent years have made clear that he thinks discrimination against African-Americans is merely a thing of the past, so the law should no longer seek to address it, whether by protecting voting rights or taking steps to desegregate public schools or through affirmative action programs.
Outbursts such as this one by Bundy remind us that this wrongheaded belief maters. Roberts’ beliefs don’t come from a place of hate the way Bundy’s do; I’m sure he would sincerely like to see a society in which race never matters and discrimination is just a memory. But he thinks we’re already there, which makes him just as blind.