Alas, poor Paul Ryan. I take the House Budget chairman at his word that he did not intend to offend African Americans with his statements about how the culture of some men “in our inner cities in particular” does not value hard work.
After all, as some other fair-minded folks have pointed out, it is not as though Ryan said something that was new, untrue or — in today’s world — distinctly right-wing.
We’ve heard similar statements sometimes delivered even more bluntly by Bill Cosby, President Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, among others.
But unlike those spokesmen, we cannot forget, Ryan has the handicap of being both white and a conservative Republican. Perhaps his own culture failed to sufficiently value the double meanings that some words take on when they cross racial and partisan lines.
The Wisconsin Republican and 2012 vice presidential candidate’s linguistic mini-scandal erupted on Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio show as Ryan previewed his legislative proposals for reforming America’s poverty programs.
“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular,” he said, “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.”
Was Ryan’s use of “inner city” a veiled racial reference, pandering to white conservatives? The euphemistic “inner city” has edged out the less elegant “ghetto” to describe low-income urban neighborhoods — although it sounds increasingly obsolete in today’s age of gentrification.
Liberal critics in media and the Congressional Black Caucus erupted with accusations. Ryan later clarified that he had been “inarticulate” in the heat of a live radio interview. Please don’t listen to what he said, he asks, only to what he meant.
Fair enough. It is too bad, in my view, that Ryan did not internalize more of the formidable cross-cultural people skills exhibited by his late political mentor, Rep. Jack Kemp. The conservative Buffalo Republican and 1996 GOP vice presidential candidate won widespread support in heavily Democratic Black and Latino communities by promoting market-driven public-private partnerships for social remedies.
Critics of Ryan’s remarks also cited his favorable reference to Charles Murray, co-author of “The Bell Curve,” a controversial 1994 book about, among other matters, racial differences in intelligence. Like Ryan’s remarks, Murray’s book also says things that sound more sinister about Black capabilities than what Murray claims he meant.
Yet, Murray has since redeemed himself in my view with his more recent book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” By focusing only on the socioeconomic changes that white Americans have experienced since the 1950s, it actually provides support for a long-running liberal argument, that the “tailspin of culture” to which Ryan referred — including out of wedlock births and “generations of men not even thinking about working” — is crippling poor and blue-collar Americans of all races.
As one who has known Murray for years and debated him onstage, I believe it was “Coming Apart” — as well as similar work by Harvard’s Robert Putnam on class divisions and social isolation — to which Ryan was referring, not “The Bell Curve.”
I also am relieved to hear that Ryan, unlike the libertarian Murray and numerous other conservatives, appears to hold on to the quaint, old-fashioned belief that government, properly utilized, can provide real remedies and not just handwringing over dire social calamities.
I don’t necessarily support all of this aspiring presidential hopeful’s ideas, but let’s give him his due. At least he has ideas.
He’s been touring urban neighborhoods, echoing Jack Kemp’s tradition, to formulate a new conservative agenda on poverty.
He has indicated that he wants to reform welfare programs in ways that will incentivize work. He also wants to enlist community groups and other institutions of civil society to fight social breakdown, he said, and deal with the “real culture problem” in these communities.
In short, he appears genuinely interested in competing for us voters of color with new ideas instead of writing us off. Before we condemn what he has to offer, let’s hear what it is.
E-mail Clarence Page at email@example.com.