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Paul Ryan, poverty, dog whistles, and electoral politics

(Cathleen Allison/AP)
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Politicians do radio and television hits all of the time --  and, typically, very few people pay any attention to what they say on-the-air.

That had to be what former Republican Vice Presidential nominee and Congressman Paul Ryan (Wis) was expecting when he agreed to appear last Wednesday on  Bill Bennett’s Morning in America. Instead, Ryan unleashed a weeks-worth of backlash, accusations of racism, and the latest chapter in the long and ongoing narrative of the GOP attempting figure out why it has such little luck with minority voters -- especially black ones -- when his comments on poverty went viral.

With the backlash entering it's second week, here's what you need to know:

"A real culture problem here"

In the Wednesday morning interview, first flagged by the liberal ThinkProgress, Ryan took to the airwaves as part of his ongoing poverty tour to discuss what leads to the economic conditions that continue to plague much of the country. At one point, in response to Bennett, Ryan said:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

While Ryan went on to talk about how the problem is compounded when those living in more socioeconomically vibrant conditions and locations do nothing to help those who are impoverished, the comments raised flags with some who interpreted "in our inner cities in particular" as a coded way to refer to impoverished people of color.

It didn't take long for those comments to catch fire in the liberal blogosphere. ThinkProgress declared: "Paul Ryan Blames Poverty On Lazy ‘Inner City’ Men"; Daily Kos added: "Paul Ryan says men in 'inner cities' aren't 'even thinking about working'"; PolicyMic declared "Paul Ryan's Racist Comments Are a Slap in the Face to 10.5 Million Americans."

Several liberal sites also noted that, later in the radio segment, Ryan cited research by Charles Murray, a controversial researcher whose 1994 book "The Bell Curve" was interpreted by some to argue that racial minorities are biologically disadvantaged compared to white men.

By  that afternoon, Congressional Democrats had joined the fray, with Rep. Barbara Lee blasting Ryan in a sharply-worded statement:

My colleague Congressman Ryan’s comments about “inner city” poverty are a thinly veiled racial attack and cannot be tolerated. Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says “inner city,” when he says, “culture,” these are simply code words for what he really means: “black.” As someone who sits on the Budget Committee with Mr. Ryan, I know that his assertions about the racial dynamics of poverty are not only statistically inaccurate, but deeply offensive. Instead of demonizing “culture,” and blaming black men for their poverty, Mr. Ryan should step up and produce some legitimate proposals on how to tackle poverty and racial discrimination in America.


Initially, Ryan defended his comments, telling Crewof42's Lauren Victoria Burke:

This has nothing to do whatsoever with race. It was a long talk and he asked about the culture and I just went off of that. This has nothing to do whatsoever with race. It never even occurred to me. This has nothing to do with race whatsoever. This isn’t a race based comment it’s a breakdown of families, it’s rural poverty in rural areas, and talking about where poverty exists — there are no jobs and we have a breakdown of the family.  This has nothing to do with race.

After noting that racial condescension is a staple of much of conservative talk radio, Slate's Dave Weigel came to Ryan's defense -- noting that Democrats including President Obama had at times used similar language -- if different tones -- when discussing poverty. Weigel wrote: "Ryan's problem, it seems, is that he's talking about inner cities while being 1) a Republican who is 2) about to unleash poverty legislation heavy on work requirements. If you're a Democrat, you can talk about the inner city in the same way Ryan does."

But, as the controversy continued to swirl, Ryan eventually walked back the remarks, issuing a new statement on Thursday in which he said:

After reading the transcript of yesterday morning’s interview, it is clear that I was inarticulate about the point I was trying to make. I was not implicating the culture of one community—but of society as a whole. We have allowed our society to isolate or quarantine the poor rather than integrate people into our communities. The predictable result has been multi-generational poverty and little opportunity. I also believe the government’s response has inadvertently created a poverty trap that builds barriers to work. A stable, good-paying job is the best bridge out of poverty.
The broader point I was trying to make is that we cannot settle for this status quo and that government and families have to do more and rethink our approach to fighting poverty. I have witnessed amazing people fighting against great odds with impressive success in poor communities. We can learn so much from them, and that is where this conversation should begin.

Dog whistles

Since Ryan's walk-back of the comments, a vibrant discussion has taken place of whether or not his initial reference to "inner city" poverty was, in fact, a dog whistle -- defined as coded racial language designed to rile up voters likely to be mobilized by racially charged rhetoric.

Ryan's comments have been compared to Newt Gingrich's labeling of President Obama during the 2012 campaign as the "Food Stamp President" and Ronald Reagan's blasting of welfare queens. Writing for Politico Magazine, Ian Haney Lopez walks through the history of racial dog whistles being employed by the Republican Party, a tactic former party leaders have admitted to employing.

These instances of racial pandering typically have been treated as disconnected eruptions, when in fact the GOP has made a concerted effort to win support through racial appeals. This pattern is so entrenched — and so well  known — that two different chairs of the Republican National Committee have  acknowledged and apologized for this strategy.
"By the seventies and into the eighties and nineties,” RNC chair Ken Mehlman  said in a 2005 speech before the NAACP, “Republicans gave up on winning the  African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically  from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you  we were wrong.” Five years later, his successor Michael Steele similarly  acknowledged that “for the last 40-plus years we had a ‘Southern Strategy’ that  alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the  South.”

It's that history, argues the Daily Beast's Jamelle Bouie, that keeps black voters from giving Republicans the benefit of the doubt. That is, Ryan may not have intended the comments to be stir racial strife, but the context into which his choice of words landed matters -- and made it harder to dismiss.

Bouie wrote:

Republicans, in particular, want to believe that they are free of racial transgressions. They’re not. We have forty years of documentation. Four decades of Southern strategies and racial appeals. It would be too much to say that Republicans are discredited on race. But they have a history—to say nothing of recent offenses—and at best, it’s checkered.
The correct response to this is to be mindful of your language. To understand that you can’t invoke “inner-city” laziness without provoking a reaction. To see that, as a prominent representative of the Republican Party, you carry its baggage.

What's next?

Ryan will sit down with the Congressional Black Caucus -- and both parties will likely issue statements afterwards, declaring the meeting productive -- while pundits will continue to analyze whether Ryan's remarks were racially insensitive. Then, the incident will likely go away, forgotten until the next one.

But what remains to be seen is if Ryan -- and, more importantly, the Republican Party as a whole -- truly takes note of the ways in which comments that could be viewed as dog whistles are harming them with minority voters.

The GOP has repeatedly acknowledged its need to make new inroads with minority voters if it is going to be competitive for the presidency in 2016; remember, exit polls from 2012 showed that Mitt Romney only carried 6 percent of African American voters.

And while Republican operatives will argue passionately that Ryan's comments were not racist, what they fail to realize is that once they've reached the point of having to defend comments they've made as "not racist," they've already lost. If the party is serious about reaching out to black and Latino voters, it's going to have to find ways to speak articulately about poverty, social justice, disparities, and race.