What Cliven Bundy Knows About “The Negro”

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 24 2014 10:36 AM

What Cliven Bundy Knows About “The Negro”

Cliven Bundy
You should take my word on racial issues.

© Steve Marcus / Reuters

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is still a cause célèbre for the right-wing, drawing praise from Tea Party activists, Republican politicians, and conservative media outlets. Kevin Williamson of National Review called him a “dissident” like Mohandas Gandhi or Henry David Thoreau, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller hailed him as a “patriot,” and Sean Hannity has praised him as somebody that’s “willing to fight.”

This was bad enough as an instance of conservative recklessness when Bundy was just a lawless rancher backed by armed militamen. It’s even worse now that we know that Bundy is full of racist bones. Here he is, as quoted by the New York Times, speaking to a public gathering of supporters:

“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.”
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In other words, the real problem with African-Americans today is that they’re addicted to welfare and unwilling to work. Sure, slavery wasn’t ideal, but at least the Negroes had skills (cotton picking!), work, and family.

Obviously, Bundy is a crank. But he’s not alone. Not only are these views shared on the survivalist fringe of American life, but they’re fairly common within the conservative movement. Enterprising pundits—almost all of them African-American—have built careers out of telling white audiences that slavery was better for black families than welfare.

There’s Walter Williams, a conservative economist at George Mason University, who told the Wall Street Journal that “The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do … that is to destroy the black family.” Likewise, there’s Star Parker—a frequent speaker at conservative gatherings like CPAC and the Values Voter Summit—whose Uncle Sam’s Plantation argues the same.

As a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Virginia, E.W. Jackson told his supporters that “slavery did not destroy the black family … government did that,” and last year, FreedomWorks—a Tea Party group—released a documentary called Runaway Slave, which details the “Democratic plantation” of welfare and entitlement benefits, used to lure African-Americans away from the Republican Party. And key to the narrative is the idea that these benefits ruined black families, succeeding where slavery failed.

In short, the only difference between Bundy and a whole host of conservatives is that the renegade rancher isn't sophisticated enough to couch his nonsense in soundbites and euphemism. Or, if Bundy has anything to say about "the negro," he learned it from the conservative movement.

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

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