Cliven Bundy's abhorrent, racist comparison of slavery to federal poverty assistance bears a striking resemblance to common claims from conservative media, who have frequently invoked slavery to describe the supposed damage "the welfare state" has done to black Americans.
Nevada rancher Bundy, who was praised by conservative media for engaging in an armed standoff with federal agents after refusing to pay decades worth of federal grazing fees on public land, on April 19 questioned whether black Americans were "better off as slaves" or "better off under government subsidy," telling a reporter in a racist rant:
"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."
As Slate's Jamelle Bouie noted, Bundy's repugnant rhetoric sounds familiar -- it's the same logic behind many right-wing criticisms of the social safety net. Media Matters has been tracking this type of offensive rhetoric for years.
During the fight over health care reform, Rush Limbaugh claimed that "It won't be a matter of whether you have coverage or don't have coverage. What'll matter is that all of us will be slaves; we'll become slaves to the arbitrary and inhumane decisions of distant bureaucrats working in Washington where there's no competition, nobody you can go to if you don't like what you hear from the bureaucrats that you have to deal with."
When Glenn Beck was a host on Fox News, he had an obsession with comparing things to slavery, including the claim that progressive policies created "slavery to government, welfare, affirmative action, regulation, control," and that "big government never lifts anybody out of poverty. It creates slaves." In 2008, Jim Quinn, the co-host of the radio show The War Room with Quinn & Rose, was forced to apologize for comparing "slave[s] in the Old South" to welfare recipients today, when he claimed that the only "difference" was that the "slave had to work for" the benefits Quinn said they received.
In his 2008 book Let Them In, The Wall Street Journal editorial board member Jason Riley argued that the Great Society programs of the 1960s were ultimately worse for black families than slavery, writing "The black family survived slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, but the well-intentioned Great Society sounded its death knell."
More recently, Riley promoted the twisted logic of George Mason University's Walter Williams (who has often guest-hosted The Rush Limbaugh Show), who claimed that because more black children live in single-mother families now, welfare "destroy[ed] the black family" more than slavery:
During Reconstruction and up until the 1940s, 75% to 85% of black children lived in two-parent families. Today, more than 70% of black children are born to single women. "The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn't do, what Jim Crow couldn't do, what the harshest racism couldn't do," Mr. Williams says. "And that is to destroy the black family."
Ted Nugent, National Rifle Association board member and a favorite of conservative media, has become infamous for his extreme racism for calling President Obama a subhuman mongrel -- but Nugent also used the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech to claim that the Great Society programs were "responsible for more destruction to black America than the evils of slavery and the KKK combined." In a 2011 Washington Times column, Nugent also suggested that the Democratic Party is the "modern-day slave master" to low-income Americans.
Vox's Matt Yglesias noted the irony of Bundy criticizing the government for assisting Americans through federal programs, when he himself has benefited from federal subsidies which keep the cost of grazing low for ranchers like himself. And though the abhorrent comparison of slavery to welfare is ridiculous on its face, it's worth noting that federal benefit programs have been vital in keeping Americans out of poverty -- in fact, federal programs today are cutting poverty nearly in half, whereas in 1967 they only reduced poverty by a single percentage point.
Conservative media may finally renounce Bundy and his lawless cause following his racist remarks; but they should also renounce this harmful, inaccurate comparison.
Right-wing media champions of voter purges have been quiet in response to a federal appeals court's decision that Florida officials' attempts to remove noncitizens from voter rolls clearly violated federal law, which protects citizens from these overbroad and error-riden challenges.
Shortly before the 2012 election, Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) and his Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner (R) undertook an effort to purportedly purge the state's voter rolls of noncitizens. The Department of Justice challenged the purge in court, arguing that Florida had violated federal law that prohibits states from booting voters off the rolls within 90 days of a federal election. This law is in place to prevent depriving citizens of the vote because of faulty database checks, performed without enough time to correct the state's errors.
At the time, right-wing media outlets like The Wall Street Journal and National Review Online were overwhelmingly supportive of Governor Scott and his attempts to block people from voting. WSJ's senior editorial writer Jason Riley dismissed the DOJ's challenge, since "[t]he Obama Administration sees racial animus and voter-suppression conspiracies in any Republican-led effort to improve ballot integrity." NRO contributor Hans von Spakovsky also dedicated numerous posts to the issue, calling the DOJ's lawsuit "spurious," and evidence of "politics and ideology driving the legal decision-making" at the agency "as opposed to nonpartisan, objective analysis of the facts and the law."
Von Spakovsky had even more to say on the subject. In a different post about the case in 2012, he complained about the DOJ's "lawlessness" in its attempts to restore the voting rights of affected citizens in Florida:
Time and again, the Holder Justice Department has exhibited politically driven law enforcement. But its latest instance of lawlessness is absolutely brazen.
This goes far beyond Holder's previous actions, such as belittling claims of voter fraud and trying to stop voter ID and other reform measures intended to improve the integrity of the election process. This letter would directly abet vote thieves in a key state as Holder's boss seeks reelection [in 2012].
The Wall Street Journal doesn't understand how a federal anti-discrimination law that protects firefighters of color actually works, but that didn't stop one of its editorial board members from complaining about it.
On March 18, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city had settled a twelve-year lawsuit with a group of black firefighters who alleged that the entrance exams the department used resulted in impermissible racial discrimination that was unrelated to the skills necessary for the job. The group that filed the suit argued that the entrance exam had an unjustified disparate impact on black and Hispanic firefighters, a legal doctrine that has been codified in federal employment discrimination law and upheld repeatedly by the Supreme Court. In NYC, according to The Associated Press, the discriminatory effect occurred because "black firefighters have never made up more than 4 percent of the department's total," even though "more than half of residents identify with a racial minority group."
But the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial board is clearly no great fan of disparate impact litigation, was unimpressed by the numbers. In a recent post, the WSJ's Jason Riley argued that Mayor de Blasio's support of the settlement was misplaced since, despite the fact that the federal courts found the exams had an illegal disparate impact under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, "the city might have won" the case. Riley proceeded to label the long-standing legal doctrine prohibiting the city's illegal disparate impact on firefighters of color as "nonsense" (emphasis added):
"I think the numbers speak for themselves," said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in announcing that the city had settled a discrimination lawsuit against the fire department. The mayor was suggesting that the FDNY's written exam is biased because blacks and Hispanics pass it at lower rates than whites.
But the numbers don't speak for themselves. Intent matters. Racially disparate outcomes alone are not proof of discrimination, yet advocates of such nonsense continue to exploit our legal system. "No speck of evidence is required from those who implicitly assume that employee composition would be similar to population composition, in the absence of discrimination," writes Thomas Sowell in "Intellectuals and Race." "Moreover, not one flesh-and-blood human being who even claims to have been discriminated against is necessary for 'disparate impact' cases to go forward in a costly legal process."
From the March 7 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier:
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In response to a new ad that cites the death of Trayvon Martin to encourage states to end Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws, Fox's Hannity claimed the laws actually benefit black Americans more than any other race. The falsehood, first pushed by the conservative blog The Daily Caller, ignores the fact that homicides with black victims are disproportionately found to be justified in SYG states, as well as SYG's impact on states' homicide rates.
A Wall Street Journal columnist cited a new Urban Institute study on the increased wealth gap between communities of color and whites to both revive the debunked accusations that fair housing policies caused the subprime mortgage bubble and falsely link Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez to these claims.
Continuing the outlet's relentless attacks on current Labor Secretary nominee Perez, editorial board member Jason Riley wrote a WSJ column claiming Perez is responsible for the racial wealth gap documented by a recent Urban Institute report by purportedly "saddl[ing] a lot of minorities with foreclosed homes, huge debt burdens and bad credit scores."
The support for this backwards allegation was that as head of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice under President Obama, Perez effectively pursued lawsuits against banks that impermissibly discriminated against communities of color during the administration of former President George W. Bush. From the WSJ:
Not surprisingly, neither the Urban Institute nor the New York Times have much to say about the federal policies that pushed lenders to loan money to people unlikely to be able to repay it. But the reality is that well-intentioned housing policies aimed at low-income minorities have ultimately left those folks worse off.
President Obama's nominee for labor secretary, Thomas Perez, made a name for himself in the Justice Department by shaking down some of these lenders for "racial discrimination" if blacks and Hispanic applicants weren't approved for some loans at the same rate as whites. Other lenders got the message.
Mr. Perez is getting a promotion, and the Obama administration is patting itself on the back for pursuing these so-called fair-lending cases. Of course, all they've really done is saddle a lot of minorities with foreclosed homes, huge debt burdens and bad credit scores.
A Wall Street Journal editorial scolds communities of color for protesting New York City police "stop-and-frisk" tactics, failing to mention that the police are changing this policy in response to successful challenges to its constitutionality. The WSJ also incorrectly claimed these warrantless street detentions have "a track record of saving lives and making ghettos safer" and falsely equated constitutional gun violence prevention strategies with unconstitutional search and seizure violations.
In the past decade, despite evidence of its inefficacy, the NYPD has dramatically increased stop-and-frisk, which overwhelmingly targets young men of color. Support for this police tactic is not strong, receiving the most significant opposition in the communities of color where it is most prevalent. Recent lawsuits alleging this police practice is not only impermissibly racially discriminatory, but also a systematic violation of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures, are succeeding.
Nevertheless, the WSJ argued that black and Hispanic New Yorkers should be "thankful" that the police are targeting them for pat-downs without reasonable suspicion of illegal activity. From the editorial:
Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly credit "stop and frisk" police tactics with the drop in homicides, and rightly so, but it's worth noting that Gotham has a slew of Democrats running to succeed Mr. Bloomberg next year and promising to repeal "stop and frisk" if they're elected. The left claims to care so deeply about the welfare of minorities and the poor, yet they oppose policies that have a track record of saving lives and making ghettos safer for the mostly law-abiding people who live in them.
By the way, many of these same liberal opponents of "stop and frisk" support stricter gun control laws. But as commentator David Frum recently asked, how can you support gun control and oppose "stop-and-frisk"?
The WSJ does not cite evidence for its claim that the "drop in homicides" is due to the past decade's stop-and-frisk policing. In fact, the evidence does not support this much-repeated right-wing talking point. In addition to the NYPD admission that "nearly nine times out of ten" the individuals detained under the policy are innocent and that police discover "guns in only about one of every 666 stops--or 0.15 percent," claims that stop-and-frisk is responsible for the drop in homicide are spurious. As explained by The New York Times:
[Proponents of stop-and-frisk] applaud the mayor for inventing "a new statistic": 5,600 "fewer murders in the past decade" because of stop-and-frisk.
The mayor's math is certainly inventive, as well as deeply ahistoric. He takes the high point for homicides, which hovered around 2,200 in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then he points to the number of homicides each year since he took office in 2002, which has hovered near 500, and claims 5,600 lives saved.
Where to begin?
The early 1990s represented a high-water mark for urban bloodshed. Boston, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, Richmond, Washington: all became caldrons of violence.
The wave of homicides subsided most substantially in New York, but violence slid in most cities. Smart policing helped a lot. So did the waning of the crack epidemic, the decline of drug turf wars, and tens of thousands of citizens who refused to stay locked in their homes.
New York experienced its sharpest drop before 2002, the year Mr. Bloomberg took office. Since then, homicides have fallen about 11 percent, while stop-and-frisks increased sevenfold.
The NYPD has already begun changing its stop-and-frisk policy in recognition of the increasingly successful challenges to its constitutionality. Although brief police detentions of individuals on the street are not automatically unconstitutional, in certifying a class action lawsuit against the NYPD's specific stop-and-frisk practices, a federal court warned the NYPD last summer that its use of the practice appeared to go far beyond what was constitutionally reasonable. Furthermore, on the same day the editorial page of the WSJ published support for stop-and-frisk, a federal court struck down part of it as unconstitutional, a major news story the WSJ covered in its straight news section:
In the first judicial rebuke of the city's stop-and-frisk practice, a federal judge ordered the New York Police Department to end what the ruling described as "unlawful trespass stops" outside some private buildings in the Bronx.
In her harshly worded ruling, the judge wrote that "while it may be difficult to say where, precisely, to draw the line between constitutional and unconstitutional police encounters, such a line exists, and the NYPD has systematically crossed it."
Finally, the WSJ recycled journalist David Frum's question, "How can you support gun control and oppose stop-and-frisk?"
The answer is simple. First, even if stop-and-frisk was an effective gun violence prevention measure, as right-wing media erroneously claim, it does not follow that it is a necessary tool to enforce gun laws. Second, as conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia concluded, "gun control" is constitutional. According to yesterday's federal district court ruling, NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy is not.
Fox News figures have suggested that President Obama isn't serious about enacting comprehensive immigration reform and is instead "trying to shore up his base" among Hispanic voters. However, there has been a major increase in border security under Obama -- which Republicans say is their starting point for action on the issue.