Congressman Paul Ryan met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Wednesday to clear the air after comments he made about how the culture of “inner cities” helps explain persistent poverty.
“Congressman Ryan is a nice guy, and as such you know he has tried to frame the comments that he made about inner city folk as just sort of an inarticulate way of communicating,” Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) told reporters last week. “We want to challenge his assumptions about that and really raise with him a couple of very specific proposals.”
Ryan’s comments came in a March radio interview with Bill Bennett in which he discussed his ongoing work touring economically struggling parts of the country in order to identify anti-poverty policies that House Republicans might support.
“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 to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” Ryan said in his conversation with Bennett.
While Ryan later said his remarks had nothing to do with race, critics complained that his comments inappropriately stigmatized black men struggling to overcome generations of discrimination. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), a CBC member, called them “a thinly veiled racial attack (that) cannot be tolerated.” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office also criticized Ryan, with a spokesman calling the quotes “shameful, disturbing, and wrong.”
Others were upset over Ryan’s reference in the same interview to Charles Murray, a conservative social scientist best known for his past work studying links between race and IQ, as an authority on poverty issues. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), another CBC member, complained last week that Murray had “been pouring racist sewage into open ears for a couple generations now” and that Ryan’s interest in his work “suggests ignorance” of racial issues.
Ryan, for his part, said he was “inarticulate” and “was not implicating the culture of one community—but of society as a whole.” In an interview with BuzzFeed published Sunday night, Ryan said he was still trying to figure out the best approach to discussing race and poverty.
“We have to be cognizant of how people hear things,” Ryan said. “For instance, when I think of ‘inner city,’ I think of everyone. I don’t just think of one race. It doesn’t even occur to me that it could come across as a racial statement, but that’s not the case, apparently … What I learned is that there’s a whole language and history that people are very sensitive to, understandably so. We just have to better understand. You know, we’ll be a little clumsy, but it’s with the right intentions behind it.”