As good news-watchers know, on Thursday a controversy broke over Cliven Bundy’s remarks at his press conference. This seems to be the objectionable passage:
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.
“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
It was enough for Bundy to lose the support of a small-government hero, Sen. Rand Paul:
“His remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him,” Sen. Rand Paul said in a statement Thursday morning.
Not being one to shy from controversy, I’d like to analyze Bundy’s remarks briefly, seeking to name the ways in which they may be racist.
One dictionary defines racism as “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.”
I find that definition reasonable, but narrow. I define racism more broadly, as any line of thinking in which racial categories (all of which I view as highly questionable; even stupid) are thought to be valid and important.
By *my* definition, Bundy’s remarks are racist because he views “the Negro” as a distinct category of Americans, a category meaningful enough for Bundy to focus on poor behaviors among them that, in reality, are shared by Americans of all races and classes. And so I cannot endorse what Bundy said.
But I notice that under a more conventional dictionary definition of racism (the one quoted above), Bundy’s remarks are not-so-racist because his point is not to promote “White Power” in any fashion; his point is about the debilitating effects of government dependency. Bundy’s remarks show back-handed sympathy for the plight of “the Negro” who has been trapped into a life of dependency, by government.
And that harks back to the issue that put Bundy in the news to begin with: controversy over the size and role of government in American life. While the Federal government does own the land that Bundy grazes on and probably has a right to evict him, Bundy and his supporters are right to question the oppressive, hypocritical and arbitrary quality of the government’s actions against them.
It’s a pity that Bundy is an imperfect person; flawed enough that he thinks a little too much in racial categories and says stupid things, based on racial categories. But even people who are flawed/wrong deserve protection from arbitrary, oppressive government.