Paul Ryan Accused of Racism for Suggesting That There’s Endemic Poverty in Inner Cities

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 13 2014 9:46 AM

Paul Ryan Accused of Racism for Suggesting That There’s Endemic Poverty in Inner Cities

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Paul Ryan demonstrates to the language police that he is unarmed.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In conservative rhetoric, in talk radio especially, it's easy to find tone-deaf talking-down about race. Democrats want to do to America what they did to Detroit. Black voters don't seem to understand that unemployment's higher than ever for them. And so on. It can get a little patronizing.

But was that what Paul Ryan was doing in a radio interview with Bill Bennett? ThinkProgress, in an item that's been shared more than 20,000 times on Facebook, informs us that Ryan, in a preview of the poverty legislation he's been hinting at for a few months, "blam[ed] poverty on lazy 'inner city' men."

"House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) previewed his upcoming legislative proposals for reforming America’s poverty programs during an appearance on Bill Bennett’s Morning in America Wednesday," writes Igor Volsky, "hinting that he would focus on creating work requirements for men 'in our inner cities' and dealing with the 'real culture problem' in these communities."

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ThinkProgress provides the clip, which is—shock—less definitive than the headline. Ryan says there's a problem "in our inner cities in particular," of "generations of men not even thinking about working."

"In particular" is a useful qualifier, isn't it?  Not to David Sirota, who pulls data on usage of the term "inner city" and hints that it's a racialist code. "The term basically only started being used in the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the civil rights movement’s legislative successes," writes Sirota. "That is to say, the term only became a part of the vernacular at precisely the moment the conservative political backlash to the civil rights movement came into vogue."

That's interesting, although, well, Paul Ryan was born in 1970. The chart cited by Sirota finds usage of "inner city" plunging when Ryan came of age. Sirota himself says the term isn't "always" used in a bigoted way, but "the term’s history does seem to at least buttress assertions that it comes with racial connotations." (It also syncs up with a trend of surging crime rates and flight from the inner city, but best to move on.)

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.

"There are communities where for too many young people it feels like their future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts of town," said President Obama in his speech to announce new "promise zones" in poor (some rural) areas. "Too many communities where no matter how hard you work, your destiny feels like it’s already been determined for you before you took that first step. I’m not just talking about pockets of poverty in our inner cities. That's the stereotype."

He acknowledged that it was a stereotype; Ryan just assumed it was a sterotype. In the world of hate-clicking, there's no allowance for Ryan framing this in familiar terms to a skeptical conservative audience. He said there's endemic poverty in the inner cities, and it's not up to him to say it.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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