It’s an unfortunate irony that recent remarks by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) addressing what he called a lost “value of work” among the inner-city poor came last week.
It’s ironic because the deluge of criticism regarding Ryan’s remarks coincides with the one-year anniversary of his party’s minority outreach initiative, meant to build stronger political ties between Republicans and minorities.
Ryan explained his remarks, which hinted that inner-city poor might not want to work or better themselves, were “inarticulate.” But this mea culpa didn’t stop Ryan’s critics from seizing upon his statement. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the remark was a “thinly veiled racial attack.” CBC chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-OH) sent Ryan a letter in which she called his March 12 comments on William Bennett’s syndicated radio show “highly offensive.”
Of course, comments such as Ryan’s — literally interpreted — can obviously be thought to be offensive. The poor timing of this one also helps cloud discussion about conservative efforts to make inroads into minority communities. This then tends to dominate any conversation about minority outreach, with the left and skeptical audiences drawing the conclusion and perpetuating the undeserved stereotype that conservatives don’t care about the well-being of minorities.
While it’s true the political left also engages in racial demagoguery and has usually gotten away with blatant offenses against minorities, the “but-the-left-does-it-too” excuse is not an appropriate conservative reaction.
For example, conservatives can legitimately point out how Joe Biden seemingly couldn’t find any “clean” and “articulate” African-American candidates until he competed against Barack Obama in 2007 (despite being a liberal political leader for most of his adult life). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) seemed to revel in his party’s apparent success in finding the right African-American candidate because of complexion and the ability to talk in a “negro dialect” only when necessary.
Pointing out these and countless other “gotcha” examples shows that the left, in fact, is quite guilty of its own racial generalizations. But this really does nothing at all for conservative outreach. It’s a losing proposition because conservatives can’t make gains with minorities by demonizing the opposition. They already lost the stereotype war long ago.
For society, and as a proper strategy for conservatives, the focus needs to be on how to convert poor folk of all races from being strictly tax consumers to becoming productive taxpayers. It’s a complicated issue, but conservatives already have the upper hand because they have better ideas. When a politician makes a gaffe like Ryan’s, however, it distracts from and postpones this badly-needed conversation. Attention veers from seeking solutions and devolves into partisan bickering and name-calling.
This is tragic, as the very communities Ryan spoke about need an elevated discussion about ensuring they receive opportunities to move out of poverty and into prosperity.
The word tragic is especially appropriate because these events not only distract from what conservatives have to offer in terms of helping the poor (including the poor of the inner cities), but also allows liberals to rest on rhetoric and avoid explaining why their own policies have been inadequate.
Ryan later said he sought to indict “society as a whole” with his comments. He believes a “quarantine [of] the poor” created “generational poverty and little opportunity.” But, with the race card in play, any chance of jump-starting Ryan’s serious points now appears lost.
Any successful attempt by conservatives to reach out to minorities will have to rise above the usual political back-and-forth and focus on engagement and accountability from government. This is vitally important, as the conservative approach of accountability and opportunity has far more potential to bring people out of poverty than the liberal approach of dependency and victimization.