HARSH TRUTHS

03.13.14

In Defense of Paul Ryan: He Isn’t Racist, He’s Right

When Congressman Paul Ryan talked about a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities…of men not working,” he was accused—wrongly, says our columnist—of racism. We must address difficult questions around race and poverty.

Let’s get right to it, shall we? Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is not racist nor did he blow a “dog whistle” to launch a thinly veiled racist attack against black people. I offer this from the perspective of someone who has known Paul for more than 20 years: there is not a racist bone in his body.

Earlier this week, Ryan appeared on conservative talk show host William Bennett’s radio program to discuss his efforts to eradicate poverty in America.  In the course of his remarks the Chairman of the House Budget Committee blamed: “[A] 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.”

Shortly thereafter, Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) accused Ryan of “offensive and racially charged language.”  She further asserted “Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city, when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’ Does Ms. Lee know Mr. Ryan personally? Has she spent time with him discussing ways to alleviate poverty in our rural and urban communities? I do and I have.

Late last year I wrote a piece on these pages describing how Ryan could be the Jack Kemp of 2016 for the Republican Party. He is a protégé of the late Congressman and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Reagan. Thoughtful, intellectual, deliberative. Knowing both men I can tell you that neither viewed people based on the color of their skin but as individuals. This is where Rep. Lee’s attack against her Republican colleague is so troubling.

A few weeks ago Mr. Ryan released a report discussing our 50-year battle to fight poverty, an effort which has sadly failed those Americans it was designed to save.

In 1965 the American poverty rate stood at 17.3%. After trillions of dollars of federal spending, the figure remained largely unchanged at 15% in 2012.  In his report, Ryan identifies 92 federal programs that are designed to help lower income Americans. In fiscal year 2012 alone, $799 billion was spent on low-income assistance programs. Clearly money isn’t the problem.  Perhaps culture is a factor to poverty in America.

“There is something wrong with our society today that finds nothing wrong with over 40 per cent of our children born into a single parent household.”

According to data that Ryan’s report cites from the Census Bureau, single parenthood is directly correlated to poverty in our country today. While single women constitute less than 20% of all households, they head 34% of all poor households. According to the National Vital Statistics Reports issued by the Department of Health and Human Services last year, the black out of wedlock birthrate for 2012 stood at a staggering 72.3%.

I wish this sobering statistic was something new, but it isn’t. Back in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a seminal piece entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. The future New York Senator’s prescient advice nearly 50 years ago remains true today: “In a word, a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure. The object should be to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families. After that, how this group of Americans chooses to run its affairs, take advantage of its opportunities, or fail to do so, is none of the nation’s business.”

So yes, Congresswoman Lee, I believe there has been a “tailspin of culture” in which nearly three quarters of blacks born in America today are not blessed to have a mother and a father living under one roof. Rather than accuse Rep. Ryan of being racist, why don’t you call out the young black men who impregnate young black women before moving on to be a “baby daddy” to yet another young black woman whose chances of graduating from high school or college become daunting.

Were Ryan’s words a bit clumsy? Yes. In a report published earlier today in the New York Daily News Ryan offered: “It is clear that I was inarticulate about the point I was trying to make. I was not implicating the culture of one community—but of society as a whole.”

There is something wrong with our society today that finds nothing wrong with over 40 per cent of our children born into a single parent household. If there isn’t a “tailspin of culture” that ignores the significant black out of wedlock birthrate in the United States today, our society is in trouble.

Rather than criticizing Rep. Paul Ryan for issuing a clarion call for factors that have led to endemic poverty in the United States 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson sought to stem the tide of impoverished Americans, we should applaud him for speaking truth to power that Representative Barbara Lee and other Members of the Congressional Black Caucus—the “Conscience of the Congress” as they call themselves—have largely sought to ignore.