Republicans who praised Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy for standing up to the tyranny of the federal government are sprinting away from him following Bundy’s remarks suggesting blacks were better off under slavery “picking cotton.”
“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?” Bundy said in remarks first reported by the New York Times. “They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Bundy recently became a hero to some on the right after officials from the Bureau of Land Management confiscated some of his cattle, because for 20 years he’s refused to pay fees for grazing his herd on land owned by the federal government. Hundreds of gun-toting supporters rallied to Bundy’s side, and a stand-off with federal officials ended with the feds releasing his cattle. Fox News has devoted nearly five hours of effusive prime time coverage to Bundy, pundits at conservative publications like National Review likened him to George Washington and Mahatma Gandhi. Praise was not unanimous, some conservative outlets like the Weekly Standard called him lawless.
It’s perfectly consistent to believe the federal government owns too much land and also believe Bundy’s remarks are offensive. Nevertheless, Bundy’s central point – that black poverty is less a legacy of two hundred years of slavery and institutionalized racism than the welfare state – is a notion conservative speakers have espoused and conservative audiences have applauded for years.
Former Florida Republican Rep. Allen West wrote in his recent book that “the Great Society has left a legacy of economic dependence, a new form of slavery, and to me, a far more dangerous one, because it destroys the will and determination to excel.” Aging former rock star and Republican campaign surrogate Ted Nugent once wrote that “President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society” would do “more damage, cause more harm and become responsible for more destruction to black America than the evils of slavery and the KKK combined.” Conservative columnist Thomas Sowell wrote that ”The black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.”
Sometimes the Jim Crow South is substituted for slavery, like when Duck Dynasty star and last year’s conservative pop culture martyr Phil Robertson said that ”Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
This all trickles down from somewhere. Slavery analogies are common among conservative figures like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, and it’s one of the reasons many conservatives have fallen in love with Ben Carson. In Washington, the critique of the welfare state is finessed into a more sophisticated argument that lacks references to slavery, and where race is usually discussed through euphemism or not at all. That’s when we begin to hear things like Rep. Paul Ryan speaking of “generations of men” in “inner cities” who don’t know “the value and the culture of work.” Then again, sometimes you have multimillionaire former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney railing against the “gifts” Barack Obama promised to “the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.”
At best, these kinds of statements combine a genuine desire to sympathize with the black poor with many conservatives’ pre-existing ideological views about government. At worst, they reflect ancient myths about black people that predate the welfare state and reassure white conservative audiences of their own innocence when it comes to racial disparities–not to mention an startling blindness about the brutal realities of chattel slavery.
Bundy has absorbed the conservative critique of the welfare state and combined it with his own perceptions about black people. But it’s no small irony that Bundy is freeloading on public land while railing against goodies the federal government doles out to shiftless blacks.Though Bundy himself may not realize it, he’s exemplifying one of the eternal paradoxes of the American welfare state – that government assistance is only a mark of shame and indolence when other people get it, especially if those “other people” are born into poverty rather than wealth. Naturally, it doesn’t occur to Bundy that two decades of grazing his herd for free on land he doesn’t own hasn’t turned him into someone who can’t work for a living.
Even as white people enjoyed an explicitly privileged status in the U.S. from the nation’s birth until the civil rights act in 1964 and the voting rights act in 1965, somehow they found a way to make do even with all the extra help.
In fact, before the modern welfare state even existed, there were white people who complained about black people being reliant on it.
As historian Eric Foner writes in Reconstruction, when radical Republicans in Congress considered redistributing land owned by defeated Confederates to former slaves, their more moderate comrades offered arguments like “for the government to give blacks land would be an act of ‘mistaken kindness’ that would prevent them from learning ‘the habits of free workingmen.” Freedmen were begging for land so they could work it for themselves instead of being forced to work the land of their former masters for pitiable wages–former masters who had grown wealthy on generations of slaves’ uncompensated labor. Still, opponents of land redistribution believed this would make blacks lazy.
Officials at the Freedmen’s Bureau, charged with managing the aftermath of emancipation in the South, held an “assumption that blacks wished to be dependent on the government” that “persisted in the face of evidence that the black community itself, wherever possible, shouldered the task of caring for orphans, the aged, and the destitute, or the fact that in many localities more whites than blacks received Bureau aid.”
The conservative critique of the welfare state on the merits is severable from ancient racist assumptions about black people. But while Republicans are rushing to condemn Bundy for his remarks, they might take a moment to consider why, exactly, he put them together so comfortably.