This week, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan found himself trying to dance his way out of these comments he made Wednesday on Bill Bennett’s “Morning In America” radio show:
“You know your buddy Charles Murray or Bob Putnam over at Harvard – those guys have written books on this. Which is, we have got this tailspin of culture in our inner cities in particular 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’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
Twenty-four hours worth of backlash later, Congressman Ryan’s office responded, saying in part:
“After reading the transcript of yesterday morning’s interview, it is clear that I was inarticulate about the point I was trying to make. I was not implicating the culture of one community, but of society as a whole.”
Got that? He didn’t mean “inner cities in particular.” He meant “society as a whole.” The congressman went on to say that, quote:
“I have witnessed amazing people fighting against great odds with impressive success in poor communities. We can learn so much from them, and that is where this conversation should begin.”
If one thing is clear about all of Congressman Ryan’s comments this week, it’s that he does indeed have much to learn. So I thought I’d help begin that conversation today with a letter.
Dear Congressman Ryan.
It’s me, Jonathan.
By now, you know we know you knew exactly who you were referring to when you were talking about those men in the “inner city.” Your congressional colleague, Barbara Lee of California, made it plain when she said:
“Congressman Ryan’s comments about ‘inner city’ poverty are a thinly veiled racial attack and cannot be tolerated. Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’”
Presumably, congressman, this insight into the minds of inner-city black men came from speaking to them directly. Since, according to the Washington Post, you spent much of last year “quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods.”
And I sincerely applaud your effort. But if you came to the conclusion that their “culture” was to blame for black male unemployment being near double the national average, I can’t help but wonder if you learned anything during your visit. Because if you had, you would have known that the existence of the inner city, and the problems of those who are confined within it is no accident.Rather, it was the end result of discriminatory housing policies enacted decades ago by federal, state and local governments that created a cycle of residential segregation for black people that persists to this day.
You might have learned that policies like red-lining and restrictive covenants, and the departure of manufacturing and commerce from cities, created pockets of generational poverty that were all but inescapable for those who were left behind. So you wouldn’t have been surprised to see a graph like this (see page 2), showing black unemployment has consistently been more than double the rate of white Americans for nearly four decades.
Nor would you have been surprised to learn that the recession exacerbated those problems for black men in particular because they were overrepresented in the manufacturing and construction jobs that were hit hardest by the recession.
Congressman, if you’d looked around when you visited those communities, you would have understood that what you were seeing was the consequence of that concentration of poverty. You would have noticed the failing schools without the resources to provide their students with a quality education. And perhaps you would have reached the same conclusion as the Bureau of Labor Statistics: that education–not your “tailspin of culture”–is one of the most reliable indicators of future employment and income.
Congressman, did you listen–I mean, really listen – to the stories of the men in those communities? Did you hear them tell of being targeted by racial profiling, discriminatory drug enforcement laws and the cycle of incarceration that keeps them shut out of not only job opportunities, but also housing and the right to vote?
So, no: the problems plaguing the inner city aren’t created by culture. They are the indirect result of government policies. And it’s going to take progressive government policies to solve them.
Which means you were right about one thing, congressman: to end the intergenerational cycle of joblessness and poverty, there is a group of taxpayer supported inner-city people who definitely have to learn something about the culture of work. Namely, you and the rest of your colleagues in the “do-nothing Congress” in Washington, D.C.