News & Politics

Paul Ryan's 'Inner City' Comment Might Mean He's Racist, But He Sure is Classist

Does he think black people are lazy? He definitely thinks poor people are. And laws reinforce lawmakers with logic like that.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Poor Paul Ryan, in trouble again for saying something stupid about poverty. If only Paul Ryan knew more actual poor people.

Yesterday, in an interview on Bill Bennett’s radio show, Ryan unselfconsciously asserted the insight that conservatives seem to believe is theirs alone: work offers people dignity. Ryan, with an equal lack of thoughtfulness, went onto diagnose “generations of men” in the “inner cities” as “not even thinking about working or learning the value and culture of work”.

It’s this last bit that’s gotten Ryan in the most trouble, stirring up accusations of intentional (if subtle) racism. The logic is transitive and not direct: by “inner cities” Ryan meant black; by describing black men as not “learning” the “value and culture of work” – and since Charles Murray has called poor people “lazy” – Ryan was saying black men were lazy. So: “inner cities” = black people; “inner cities” = not valuing work; not valuing work = “lazy”; therefore what Paul Ryan really meant is “black people = lazy”.

Racism is such an explosive accusation that it’s distracted people from the first half of Ryan’s rationalization for welfare reform: that being poor makes one lazy.

“[W]e want people to reach their potential and so the dignity of work is very valuable and important and we have to re-emphasize work and reform our welfare programs, like we did in 1996,” Ryan told Bennett. Nevermind that welfare “reform” actually has thrown more people into deep poverty – and, by Ryan’s own logic, struck a further blow to their dignity: his romanticized view of the 1996 law shows just how deeply he holds his wrong-headed theory of poverty’s causes and effects.

Paul Ryan may also believe that black people are inherently lazy. Citing Charles Murray is strong evidence that Ryan has some nagging sense of superiority linked to race. That’s wrong and stupid and reprehensible. But to my mind, that’s not as detrimental to policy as the assumption that any human being would have to be taught the value of work.

Ryan can protest that he’s not talking about race – as he did last night and today. And he may even believe that he’s not. That doesn’t make his comments any less condescending and destructive.

Ryan and his ilk flatter themselves to think that promoting dignity through hard work is controversial, that liberals and critics object to welfare “reform” because we don’t value work. But no one questions that having work can lead to greater self-respect. What’s insulting is how Ryan indicates that falling into the social safety net is the opposite of “work” and thus has the opposite effect on one’s sense of self. He may not believe only work can inculcate dignity, but in a defense of his “inner cities” comments, he called it the “best”:

A stable, good-paying job is the best bridge out of poverty.

The thing about this perspective is that it reveals a belief in the converse: that the main reason people are poor is because they choose not to work.

Ryan’s believes a community’s economic circumstances shape the choices of its members. That’s not entirely misguided. To be sure, when generations of a community don’t have “real” jobs, it can reinforce the attitude that a day job is optional. I mean, just look at the children of the rich.

But Ryan, most likely, does not assume that those with inherited wealth need to be taught about the value of work. I’d also guess that if those people put their life to some purpose that wasn’t a stable, good-paying job – say, giving away their money – he’d think that was a pretty dignified pursuit.

Paul Ryan needs to expand his vision of human nature – that the content of one’s bank account does not automatically determine the content of their character – to the poor. His words and his approach to policy (see his recent perversion of poverty studies) show that Paul Ryan believes generations of poverty make the poor intrinsically different from, say, Paul Ryan. Or Paul Ryan voters.

From that perspective, it matters less if Ryan himself is racist or not – what matters is that his statements and actions don’t do anything to challenge or change racism in other people. It’s arguably a greater tragedy if Ryan, in his heart of hearts, is not racist, or doesn’t intend to be. When he diagnoses impoverished communities, that are often black, as having rejected the values of his constituents, he re-inscribes whatever lingering animosity already exists. He teaches those already inclined to agree with him that black communities aren’t just poor, but inferior. And those voters get to believe that it’s the poverty they’re judging, not race.

This assumption of fundamental, genetic, intrinsic differences in any disadvantaged population is the underlying bias for a lot of the worst GOP policies: the belief that gay people don’t have or want the same kind of relationships as straight people, that it’s possible for a woman to be cavalier about obtaining an abortion, that Muslims can’t navigate the tensions between their religion and other loyalties and values – something with which, historically, fundamentalist Christians seem to have a lot more trouble.

We need to worry less about whether Paul Ryan or any other conservative policy maker has explicit prejudices – “black people are lazy”, “gays want to turn children gay” – than about the way his policies reinforce those assumptions. This distinction is worth making because it’s the only way we can hope to change anyone’s mind.

If Paul Ryan was forced to work from the assumption that poor people – including poor black people – have the same basic values and desires as he does, he could no longer diagnose the dysfunction of those communities as dependence on handouts. He’d have to come up with some other reason that poor people are trapped in a cycle of poverty – it might have something to do with systemic racism – and another solution to it. And almost anything would be better than the one he has now.