Paul Ryan and Charles Murray

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 13 2014 5:50 PM

Paul Ryan and Charles Murray

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Paul Ryan speaks to people from the outer suburbs.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Paul Ryan "inner cities" gaffe dominated conversation on lefty blogs and Twitter, and Josh Marshall spotlights one reason that I sort of glossed over. In the interview with Bill Bennett, Paul Ryan credited the idea that some people are trapped in cycles of poverty to Charles Murray and Robert Putnam. Marshall, like most of the people reacting negatively, ignored the Putnam name-check and asked WTF about Charles Murray.

When you start off by basing your arguments around the work of Charles Murray you just lose your credibility from the start as someone actually interested in addressing poverty or joblessness or really doing anything other than coming up with reasons to cut off what little assistance society provides for its most marginalized members or, alternatively, pumping up people with racial resentments against black people and giving them ersatz 'scholarship' to justify their racial antipathies.
That's because Murray's public career has been based on pushing the idea that black urban poverty is primarily the fault of black people and their diseased 'culture.' Relatedly, and more controversially, he has argued that black people are genetically inferior to white people and other notional races with regards to intelligence. 
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The only problem is that it's not at all clear that Ryan was thinking of that research when he spoke to Bennett. The stain of The Bell Curve has stuck to Murray for all of the 20 years since he published it. As he's said, like when he defended Barack Obama's post-Jeremiah Wright "race speech," this wrecked his reputation with some people, and it won't get un-wrecked. But the conservatives of 2014 don't cite Murray for his race work. They cite Losing Ground, which still guides how they think about welfare's effects on social norms, or they cite more recent work on inequality that stayed away from the race issue.

Not being able to read Ryan's mind, I assumed he was thinking of Murray for his Losing Ground/Coming Apart work, and not for Chapter 14 of his book about how some races just ain't got what it takes. I assumed that because Ryan wasn't saying anything about race—not explicitly, though I understand the people who argue he was dog-whistling. Could Ryan have been so clueless as to have not realized that citing Murray would make him sound racist? Honestly, probably—it's called epistemic closure, and there is no known cure.

I'm not trying to apologize for Ryan as much as I'm explaining why he might have said this. For the better part of a decade, I've covered the national conservative movement. Before that, in college, I shacked up with the college conservative movement. When explosive (even accidentally explosive) rhetoric comes over the transom, I'm more interested in where it came from than in how fast I can sharpen my pitchfork. Felt the same way during that brief moment in 2012 when Derrick Bell became an Emmanuel Goldstein figure who turned Barack Obama into a time-released socialist dictator. I'm not saying that you can't be racist without being obviously cartoonishly racist. Just explaining why Ryan might have said this, and what he might have meant, based on years of covering such things.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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