“Code words for race”: What’s really behind GOP’s poverty and welfare obsession

When Paul Ryan decried the "culture" of inner cities it followed a long conservative tradition, a scholar explains

Published March 17, 2014 4:30PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich, Rand Paul                                         (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Tami Chappell/AP/Ed Reinke)
Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich, Rand Paul (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Tami Chappell/AP/Ed Reinke)

“We have got this tailspin of culture,” Paul Ryan told ex-Reagan drug czar Bill Bennett Wednesday, “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. So there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.” Under fire from politicians and pundits, the Wisconsin congressman – perhaps the congressional GOP’s leading voice on fighting poverty – backtracked but didn’t apologize, saying he’d been “inarticulate,” and that his cultural critique applied to “society as a whole.”

To consider those comments – and how politicians of both parties appeal to race, class and supposed “welfare queens” 18 years after America gutted welfare – Salon called up University of Southern California political scientist Ange-Marie Hancock. “I do think that they are code words for race,” said Hancock, the author of "The Politics of Disgust: The Public Identity of the Welfare Queen." “But I also think they are code words for class.” A condensed version of our conversation follows.

Did anything in that quote [on Bill Bennett’s radio show] surprise you?

Nothing in that quote surprised me, other than the fact that it could have been pulled from 1994.

So I was really surprised that Paul Ryan was reverting back to arguments that have been circulating for decades, really -- but certainly in the 1994 welfare reform debate, these were highly salient, particularly among House Republicans.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee called those comments “a thinly veiled racial attack,” which “cannot be tolerated." She said that “when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’”” Do you agree?

Yes, I do think that they are code words for race. But I also think they are code words for class … Paul Ryan is making a specific kind of argument, using code words that are very commonly used to signify a black underclass or black poor population …

The idea of “dog whistle politics” is that you use code words that allow you plausible deniability. So of course Rep. Ryan can say: “I’m not racist -- I didn’t use the word ‘black’”; “I didn’t use the word ‘poor’”; “I’m only talking about that slice of people who live in the inner city, who may or may not be black.”

So is this an appeal to racism and to classism?

I think it is an appeal to racism and classism, in the sense that it offers a specific diagnosis of what kinds of things are wrong in some of our center cities in the United States. And it locates the problem so the problem is diagnosed to be in the people, and the cultures of the people themselves, rather than some of the structural economic shifts that have gone on that have left lots of our central cities without significant job sectors, without significant property tax bases.

In your book "The Politics of Disgust," you argued for an intersectional understanding of the way that race and gender and class play a role in the imagination, particularly of the “welfare queen.” How does that kind of intersection come into play here?

What we’re talking about here, in what Rep. Ryan said, is the idea that his construction of the so-called inner city … is really about a certain population. And so when he talks about “culture,” and that it’s the culture that creates the “tailspin” … what we’re really talking about is this idea of race and class together …

He has plausible deniability on racism by saying he was talking about the inner city and not race. He has plausible deniability on classism by saying he’s not just talking about poverty without talking about this idea of culture ...

One of the primary reasons why we use race and class together is to avoid the debates that have gone on in the past 50 years … [over] whether it’s race or class. In many cases it does have to do with a specific combination … and so we get more value out of looking at race and class as complementary factors that would explain certain kinds of outcomes, versus as competing factors.

What is at stake in the rhetorical move that the congressman is making?

What’s at stake … are several policies that have been on the chopping block for the Republicans in this past Congress. So anything from the debate recently that happened over food stamps, to previous years where they were talking about SCHIP and healthcare for children who were in poverty … All of these kinds of programs are now being subsumed under this idea that there is a cultural problem that needs to be fixed – and, he specifically said in that excerpt from the radio interview, [that] government is not going to be able to solve this …

The rhetorical move to the inner city as a place that’s culturally flawed allows him to then also say government is not able to solve problems that are based in culture.

And his reference to ["Bell Curve" author] Charles Murray … Ryan’s citation of Murray as well as other conservatives’ citation of Murray’s work -- what does that reflect about … what the scope of the mainstream conversation -- among politicians, among pundits -- is about how we explain poverty and racial inequality?

Murray’s work has been debunked by scholars, all different kinds of social scientists …

The fact that the Republicans and Paul Ryan are still willing to rely on this kind of flawed social scientific analysis, I think, is designed to keep the conversation focused on a debate about whether or not cultures can be inherently flawed – so, whether or not central city culture is the kind of thing that needs to be reformed -- instead of really trying to be imaginative and innovative about the ways in which government can be part of the solution …

It keeps the rhetorical debate on their own turf, which constrains the different kinds of policy options that might be on the table.

Comments like Ryan’s – do you see them as outliers? Do you see them as of a piece with the way U.S. politicians talk about poverty and inequality?

I think this is one of the rare instances where the House Republicans tend to be united … There is a certain kind of unity in how they explain poverty, and then how they then act in terms of the policies that they do not support like unemployment insurance and food stamps …

I think that there has been a significant shift in public opinion. I think part of that has to do with the millennials … coming online and coming of age, if you will, during a time where the economy has been struggling. So I think that’s part of how you get something like Occupy Wall Street -- they start to understand that these things are not simply individual in terms of their explanations. So it’s not simply that you’re an individual who doesn’t work hard enough, or an individual who hasn’t had the right mentors or examples in your life, but there’s something bigger going on here.

What about the way that Democrats talk about the causes of poverty and inequality?

They still remain, for the most part, in a kind of context that is very much associated with capitalism, quite logically because that’s the kind of system that we have …

You see a more ecumenical approach among the Democrats, in terms of government playing a role, but then also there being a role for individuals to kind of use their own efforts, and also a role for the nonprofit and philanthropic sector as well …

More in step with what I think the rest of the country is thinking about in terms of poverty: I think most Americans, following the Great Recession, understand that the enduring poverty is not simply about individual effort, or not simply about coming from a flawed culture.

On a CPAC panel last week, Robert Woodson, who’s been taking Paul Ryan on what he describes as a “quiet listening tour” through poorer places in the United States, faulted “some of our scholars” for being too focused on “the failures of the poor” rather than focusing on “studies of people who have been redeemed from that bad start” … What do you make of that kind of argument?

There is a growing type of scholarship that … focuses on success rather than problems … I think the idea that we do need to look at how people have become successful, and figure out ways in which to scale that up, so that it can become a statewide or a national kind of outcome -- I think that’s laudable …

The idea of conservatives being too pessimistic; I’m not sure I would frame it as pessimistic. I think I would frame it more as an ideological orientation that is geared toward individual explanations rather than systemic explanations.

You wrote in your book that “Historically, evaluations of welfare recipients’ lack of work ethic and hyperfertility became serious catalysts for policy options as the social construction of welfare recipients shifted from White to Black and from widow to never-married single mother.” The transformation of the welfare system in ’96 – did that lead to a transformation in welfare politics, and the phenomena that you criticized about welfare politics in the U.S.?

Sadly, no. So the phenomenon of the so-called welfare queen continues to rear its ugly head. It seems to be the social construction that never goes away, unfortunately. And again, this is despite the fact that it’s been routinely debunked …

One of the reasons why it has such lasting potential has to do with how it actually confirms some of, again, the ideological and prejudicial biases that we already hold … We are, of course, socialized into having implicit biases that are racialized, that are gendered, in very specific ways - that are also classed in very specific ways. And so the welfare queen endures partly because it matches up with -- meaning that it’s consonant with – some of these preexisting implicit biases. So, the idea that blacks are lazy, that is an implicit bias that we carry around in our head even if we wouldn’t consciously say that we agree with that statement.

And so the welfare queen endures partly because it’s consonant with implicit biases that we learned by observation and imitation when we were very, very small children.

In the 2012 campaign, after the Romney campaign started attacking the White House for supposedly gutting welfare reform, the pushback from the Obama campaign including charging that Romney, as governor, “petitioned the federal government for waivers that would have let people stay on welfare for an indefinite period, ending welfare reform as we know it, and even created a program that handed out free cars to welfare recipients.” That response from the Obama campaign … were you troubled by that?

Yes, in a word. The response itself I understand is part of campaign politics. But the idea that, you know, giving welfare recipients free cars is somehow problematic … [that] it violates, somehow, our American values -- that program was actually a response to the idea that those who were being required to work did not have access to reliable transportation to actually make it to work …

There’s a lot that gets lost in kind of these charges and countercharges, that really does actually lead the women -- mostly women -- who are working through TANF and other kinds of programs to actually twist in the wind. And it renders them invisible.

Paul Ryan said today that he was “inarticulate” but that he “was not implicating the culture of one community, but of society as a whole.” Is that a satisfying explanation?

I don’t think it’s a convincing explanation, for two reasons.

One, I think Paul Ryan has established himself as kind of the intellectual center of the Republican Party. And so the idea that he would somehow not be familiar with the “culture of poverty” arguments which have been around for nearly 50 years … seems a bit hard to believe …

[Second,] the question that was asked was directly about inner cities. And so the idea that … one sentence he’s talking about inner cities, and the next sentence he’s talking about society in general – having listened to it, it did not sound to me like he was speaking about society in general.

By Josh Eidelson

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