Why Republicans Don't Get the Benefit of the Doubt on Race

After decades of appealing to white racial resentment, Republicans shouldn't be surprised when people see animus in their rhetoric.

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In the controversy over Rep. Paul Ryan’s “inner city” remarks, we’ve reached the backlash to the backlash. “Paul said he thought it was inarticulate, but quite frankly, Democrats are lying in wait as well to pounce on whatever might be off tone,” said Reince Preibus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Likewise, on the internet, conservative pundits proclaimed Ryan a victim of liberal race baiting. “Attacks on Ryan show no matter how earnest and well meaning you are, they will find a way to call you racist” said National Review editor Rich Lowry on Twitter.

This complaint—that liberals use “racist” as a generic charge against conservatives, and that Republicans are denied the benefit of the doubt on race—isn’t specific to the case of Paul Ryan and what he believes about work ethic in the inner-city. Many conservatives believe there’s an unfair dynamic in American politics where Republicans are attacked for racism regardless of what they do. This Daily Caller lede from the 2010 election cycle is emblematic of the complaints:

Politics has a tendency to devolve into juvenile playground taunts and smears. This election cycle has been no different — with one of the Democrats’ most coveted insults this year being calling the opposing candidate a racist.

If you have the time for it, Google “Democrats calling Republicans racist.” For every instance of the phenomenon—justified or otherwise—you’ll find endless weeping and gnashing of teeth from conservatives. There’s Neil Cavuto of Fox News (“If all else fails, just call Republicans racists for obstructing”), Rush Limbaugh (“The Democrats’ message is, ”The Republicans are all white. They’re all racists“), and countless blog posts denouncing Democrats as ”the real racists" of American politics.

Of course, it’s not enough to just note this dynamic. If Democrats and liberals do have a hair-trigger with the word “racist”—if Republicans are denied the benefit of the doubt on race—it’s worth asking why. The conservative answer is that Democrats are cynical; that they generate enthusiasm by denouncing their opponents as heirs to Bull Connor and George Wallace.

For as much as there are Democrats and Democratic partisans who do this, I think it lets the GOP (the party of “personal responsibility”) off the hook for its own language and behavior. Simply put, liberals aren’t pulling this out of thin air. If they see race in conservative rhetoric, it’s because—for a long time—it was there.

Take Ryan’s remarks: “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 the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

If observers saw this as a racial attack, it’s because that exact language has a racial dimension, and was often used by Republicans as a billy club against “undeserving minorities” and the welfare state.

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, according to a wide range of social science research, increasing numbers of whites agreed with statements like “Negroes who receive welfare could get along without it if they tried,” and “It’s really a matter of some people just not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.” Cynical politicians took advantage of this fact with coded, “dog whistle” language.

The classic example is Ronald Reagan’s speechifying against the “Chicago welfare queen” with “eighty names, thirty addresses, [and] twelve Social Security cards [who] is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands,” as well as the “strapping young buck” who is “ahead of you to buy T-bone steak” while “you were waiting in line to buy hamburger.” Where the “you” was the “hard-working” white audience member.

Republicans still rely on this connection between “welfare” and African Americans. During the GOP primaries, Newt Gingrich traded on the idea of indolent minorities to great effect, with a riff on President Obama (he’s a “Food Stamp President”) and poor children in South Carolina, “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday.” His proposal, if you’re wondering, was to end child labor prohibitions to encourage a “culture of work.”

This language even found its way into the general election. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send your welfare check and ‘welfare to work’ goes back to being plain old welfare,” said one ad from the Romney campaign, falsely attacking the president for gutting the work requirements in Temporary Aid for Needy Families. As Alec MacGillis reported for The New Republic, Romney leaned heavily on this line while campaigning in the coal country of Ohio, speaking to large crowds of working-class whites. In the context of American politics, it was a clear racial appeal. Even clearer was Romney’s declaration in the aftermath of his election, when he blamed his loss on President Obama’s offer of “extraordinary financial gifts from the government” to “certain members of his base coalition”.

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But there’s more to this than language. In the realm of action, Republicans have shown a troubling disdain for the interests of minorities in general, and African Americans in particular. The most vivid (and recent) example comes in the form of voter identification laws, which hit the books in a wide range of states after the 2008 and 2010 elections. This wasn’t a coincidence. In a recent study, researchers found that odds for voter ID increased dramatically in competitive, GOP-controlled states with large black populations. And indeed, in places like North Carolina and Ohio, Republican lawmakers have taken steps to impose ID requirements, close precincts in urban areas, and reduce or eliminate early and Sunday voting—measures that directly affect African American voters and impede their ability to get to the polls.

What’s striking is the extent to which none of this has been challenged or questioned by GOP elites. Instead, Republicans have defended voter identification as a key tool in the fight against voter fraud, despite scant evidence that fraud even exists.

All of this exists in the context of a conservative media world that shamelessly traffics in racial resentment, from Glenn Beck’s declaration that Obama “hates white people” and the late Andrew Breitbart’s railroading of Shirley Sherrod, to Megyn Kelly’s obsession with the “New Black Panthers” and the recent condemnation of Debo Adegbile—Obama’s nominee to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department—as the dupe of a cop killer.

When it comes to race, Americans are forgetful. When it comes to race and politics, Americans are near-amnesiatic. And Republicans, in particular, want to believe that they are free of racial transgressions. They’re not. We have forty years of documentation. Four decades of Southern strategies and racial appeals. It would be too much to say that Republicans are discredited on race. But they have a history—to say nothing of recent offenses—and at best, it’s checkered.

The correct response to this is to be mindful of your language. To understand that you can’t invoke “inner-city” laziness without provoking a reaction. To see that, as a prominent representative of the Republican Party, you carry its baggage.

Judging from their complaints, Republicans want to believe that their actions don’t matter. That their rhetoric doesn’t count. That everything is forgiven, and they can stay as they are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness. But grace isn’t cheap, and if Republicans want the benefit of the doubt on race, they’re going to have to earn it.