Cliven Bundy and the right’s race problem

In 2012, conservatives were offended when President Obama said in a speech, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Conservatives consider Obama’s comments representative of his lack of respect and empathy for small business owners and their struggles. Obama’s defenders countered that the president’s comments had nothing to do with businesses at all—that he was simply making a point about government’s interconnected role in building highways, bridges and infrastructure.

Today, it doesn’t matter. The perception persists, as does the anger and mistrust.

What Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy said about slavery and African-Americans was unquestionably racist, from the patronizing way in which he said it (referring to “the Negro”) to the substance of what he actually said—wondering if black Americans were somehow better off under slavery than those who accept government assistance.

Most conservatives who had previously supported Bundy’s land battle with the federal government immediately distanced themselves from him and his comments.

But not all conservatives.

Radio host and former Republican congressman Joe Walsh insisted not only that “What Cliven Bundy said right there is not racist,” but also that Bundy was “not a racist for wondering out loud or worrying out loud about the state of black America today.”

At CNN.com, conservative pundit Crystal Wright noted that other conservatives were trying to explain away Bundy’s comments by saying they were taken out of context.

And, as Wright noted, Bundy’s conservative defenders were missing the much larger point—the glaring, overall offensiveness of his context.

There is nothing in the American experience as horrific as the institution of slavery. It is just as ridiculous for conservatives like Sarah Palin to compare the national debt to slavery as it for liberals like MSNBC’s Christopher Hayes to compare that historical tragedy to fossil fuel consumption.

Nothing compares to slavery.

I used to do the same thing. In my former life as a conservative talk host, I would try to make antiwar and pro-civil liberties arguments through comparisons to the Civil War. I wasn’t talking about slavery or race, at least in my mind, only making arguments in a provocative way.

And provocative they were—because for every argument I thought I was making about the proper limits of warfare or just war theory, I was making them using historical examples that will forever be inextricably tied to slavery and race.

Whatever points I thought I was making was beside the much larger point—that no one should ever be flippant or dismissive of something as uniquely tragic as human bondage.

Business owners have every right to be offended by Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comments, in the sense that he did appear dismissive or unappreciative of the struggles most entrepreneurs go through.

But at some point conservatives will also have to begin giving more serious consideration to what black Americans have gone through. Conservatives are going to have to do a better job of at least being cognizant of what it means to be black in the United States.

Particularly in their rhetoric.

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has argued that Bundy’s controversial comments about slavery and welfare were no different than what other black conservatives have been saying for years. He has a point.

In 1994, the New York Times profiled popular conservative talk radio host “The Black Avenger” Ken Hamblin: “Mr. Hamblin, an intellectual brawler sometimes called the black Rush Limbaugh, delights in kicking sand in the face of liberal orthodoxy with the sort of wicked zest, he says, ‘that a white person couldn’t get away with.”

What kind of things would Hamblin say that he thought whites “couldn’t get away with?”

In his 1991 column, “Don’t Feed the Blacks,” Hamblin compared blacks to animals, and said of observing his fellow African-Americans in New York City, that he was…

“reeling from the rubbish, the grimness and the failure of black people… resigned to becoming little more than welfare pets… Like the brown bears that forage for sustenance in garbage dumps, ghetto blacks have lost the need to support their children and to fend for themselves.”

The New York Times reported, “On the radio, Mr. Hamblin routinely uses phrases intended to inflame his critics. He sometimes refers to himself as a ‘Negro’ (‘I dragged my tired old Negro butt out of bed this morning…’) and calls liberal black politicians ‘dysfunctional demagogues of darktown.”

Hamblin’s popular syndicated program was on 200 radio stations across the country, and he was an early template for what Bouie described and even Hamblin himself iterated to the NYT two decades ago—black conservatives who say things about race that no white conservative would dare.

But what does such rhetoric say to African-Americans about white conservatives comfortable with listening to such things? On some level, do too many conservatives consider racial insensitivity a politically incorrect badge of honor? What do Bundy’s comments sound like to minorities, particularly within a larger rightwing context?

What, exactly, are most black Americans to make of conservatives?

To minorities and others, does Cliven Bundy come off as an aberration—or something more common? When Ted Nugent calls Obama a “subhuman mongrel,” and some conservative Republicans defend him, what can we expect minorities to think about conservatives and the Republican Party?

The overwhelming majority of conservatives reject Bundy’s statements, but the right’s characteristic lack of empathy for black Americans will continue to lead to widespread speculation about what conservatives really think about race.

This is not to say that every accusation of racism against conservatives from MSNBC and other liberals holds water. Most of those attacks are ridiculous. But it is to say that despite leftwing fantasies about every conservative being a racist, this is a perception that extends beyond liberal circles.

People who think you don’t like them will not listen to you, much less vote for you. Too many black Americans think conservatives don’t like them. Too few conservatives have done anything to change these perceptions.

And those perceptions will continue to foster a deep mistrust conservatives ignore at their own peril.


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