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Why Would Paul Ryan Think About Race?

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PAUL RYAN
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI via Getty Images

It is not clear whether Paul Ryan's comments last month about poverty and African Americans were intended to be racist, but it is difficult not to interpret them that way. Perhaps Ryan did not realize that "inner-city" is racial code for African American or that Charles Murray is seen by many as a racist psuedo-scholar rather than an authority on poverty. It is also possible that Ryan does not understand that poverty and unemployment are hardly problems limited to the inner cities or to African Americans.

Ryan's true intentions may not be knowable, but the comments themselves are revealing, but not because of their substance. We already know that Ryan's views on economics lean toward lowering taxes cutting programs that might help poor people and relying on the magic of the market. Anybody with those beliefs will naturally support any argument that suggests the way to solve poverty problems is not through increased social spending, so there is no surprise there.

Ryan, however, is not just another conservative member of Congress. He has spent several years trying to establish his bona fides as deep conservative economic thinker, largely by pouring old supply side wine into new powerpoint bottles. He is also a past, and very likely future, candidate for national office. Ryan may have made these comments deliberately, knowing the anger it would precipitate from African Americans, as a way to signal to the Republican base that he could be trusted to be sufficiently conservative. If that is the case, then Ryan was indeed speaking in a racist way.

There is another, perhaps more plausible, but equally disturbing explanation. Perhaps Ryan believes that cultural issues contribute to poverty, and meaning to speak about poverty generally, unwittingly used racially coded language and invoked the name of a writer who has been accused of being a racist. If this is true, it reveals that a national Republican figure has thought so little about race in American that he does not know the very basics of how to speak about poverty without stumbling into accusations of racism.

This, is unfortunately a reasonably plausible scenario, but one that underscores that in a country that is more racially diverse every day, the Republican Party, Ryan after all is generally presented as one of the smarter and more thoughtful nationally prominent Republicans, does not understand the very basics of how to speak about race and poverty.

To some extent this is to be expected given not only that African Americans vote heavily Democratic, but that Republicans rarely even seek African American votes anymore. In this regard Ryan is simply a representative of his party and his time. The impact this has had and will continue to have on the US is nonetheless significant. Because Republicans do not seek African American votes, there is no need for them to have a lot of contact with African Americans at all. Therefore, Republicans do not need to, and generally do not, understand the problems, challenges and concerns that are particularly distinct for African Americans. For example, for inner city African Americans, the absence of good jobs, predatory lending, the prison-industrial complex and bad schools are considerably more serious issues than Ryan's amorphous cultural explanations.

A Republican Party that has over a period of decades removed itself from any close political contact with African Americans not only will naturally have a very poor understanding of that group, but will be committed to the belief that race is no longer an important issue in the US. If race is not an important issue, it is much easier for Republicans to explain away their lack of success with or interest in African Americans. This contributes to the Republican insistence that racism is a thing of the past and that any suggestion that race or racism is driving a policy or campaign tactics is dismissed as somebody else is playing the race card.

Ryan's comments last month reflect a political climate where Republicans not only do not meaningfully speak to African American citizens, but they tell themselves and their supporters stories about politics and economics that will ensure that they do not have to speak to African American voters in the future. This is, in the short term, bad for the Republican Party as it means that in order to win elections in many states, they have to run up margins among white voters that are increasingly difficult to attain. More significantly it institutionalizes a political environment where denying the enduring effects of racism becomes a political and psychological survival strategy for almost half of the polity.