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Cliven Bundy's Racism Is a Problem for Republicans

The rancher's fight with federal land agents comes with a side of racist wingnut.

Photo via the We Support Cliven Bundy Facebook group

By now, you have no doubt heard about Cliven Bundy and his fight against the Bureau of Land Management. The Nevada cattle rancher’s armed standoff against federal agents turned him into an overnight Fox News folk hero, embraced by freedom Republicans like seantors Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and branded a “domestic terrorist” by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. You are also probably aware that Bundy has revealed himself to be a grade-A racist who thinks black people would be better off in slavery.


Sermonizing on his desert homestead, Bundy gave supporters—and New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney—a taste of his crackpot worldview, leading with the always-inauspicious phrase “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro…” As Nagourney reported Thursday, that “thing” was that one time Bundy drove past a public housing project in Las Vegas, and saw a few black people sitting on the porch. Here’s what Bundy said:

“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? […] 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.”

I really wanted to like Cliven Bundy. I really did. As I wrote earlier this month, the showdown at Bundy Ranch was part of a long-running—and very relevant—fight over the federal government’s control of land and resources in the West. In Bundy’s case, he and other ranchers got shortchanged in the 90s, when the government decided to use the land in question to protect the endangered desert tortoise, ending cattle grazing in exchange for allowing private developers to destroy other tortoise habitats. (Yes, you're right, that does sound shady.) Bundy stopped paying federal grazing fees in protest, and for the past two decades has been illegally feeding his cattle on public land, racking up $1.1 million in unpaid fines in the process. It’s worth noting, though, that even if Bundy had paid, the government still would have forced him to remove his cows from the land, as they did with all of his rancher neighbors. Framed in those terms, it sounded like he had a legitimate beef.


Of course, any sympathy I had for Bundy evaporated somewhere between “they put their young men in jail” and “they never learned to pick cotton.” It turns out he is just another government-hating bigot with a big gun. You can watch the whole sad spectacle in the video below:

There is nothing inherently racist about thinking that federal government shouldn’t control nearly 50 percent of the land in Western states. Nor, for that matter, is there anything inherently racist about opposing gun control laws, or wanting to audit the Federal Reserve. But wherever these issues arise, there is invariably a white guy with an American flag and a sidearm that wants to tell you what he knows about “the Negro.” And what could have been a meaningful, important debate about the size and scope of the federal government turns into yet another rant about black people on welfare and open borders. (Curiously, Bundy doesn’t seem have a problem with “Spanish people.”)

The conservative push for “state’s rights” and “property rights”—and the more extreme "county supremacy" ideas espoused by Bundy and his ilk—have always been racist dog-whistles, dating back to the fight over slavery, when “property” was code for “enslaved black people,” and leading through the Civil Rights Movement, when opposition to desegregation policies became a cornerstone of the modern conservative movement. While the state’s rights rallying cry has taken different forms over the years, the laws that conservatives have opposed have almost always been related to race.


In the Obama era, absent any real racial policy agenda from either party, virtually every political issue—from health care reform to the federal budget deficit—has taken on racial undertones. A recent piece by New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait delved into this new political reality, citing a 2009 study by political Michael Tesler and David Sears that found that, under Obama, people’s feelings about race had bled into everything: If you knew how someone felt about racial politics, you pretty much knew how they would feel about health care reform, a correlation that was stronger in 2009 than in 1993, when Bill Clinton was trying to push through his own health care bill.

That doesn’t mean, as MSNBC frequently suggests, that white racial resentment and small-government libertarianism are one and the same. But the conservative movement—and particularly the Tea Party coalition that came out to fight for Bundy Ranch—is rife with explicitly racist imagery and rhetoric, from signs depicting Obama as a witch doctor to the less subtle “Put the White Back in the White House” T-shirt that appeared at a Mitt Romney rally in Ohio in 2012.

Photo via Flickr user Andrew Aliferis

So pervasive is this bigotry, in fact, that according to this 2012 Stanford University study, the longer people are enmeshed in the Tea Party, the more focused they become on their “white identity.” That’s not particularly shocking when you consider that activists tuning in to Rick Santelli’s Guerilla Media Network for Bundy Ranch updates were also treated to a particularly abhorrent rant on “Jewish extremism” and “Zio-globalism” from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.


“From the beginning, racism has always been part of the Tea Party, starting back with the birther movement,” said Devin Burghart, vice president of the Kansas City-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which has been tracking the Bundy Ranch fiasco. “And it's gotten worse, rather than gotten better. You can’t say that everyone of them is racist, but the movement is awash in racist rhetoric, and that affects its membership.”

What makes Bundy’s casual racism so treacherous—apart from all of its obvious terribleness—is that it's put an end to a legitimately relevant and important policy debate about the federal government’s control of land and resources in the West. No one wants to talk about land policy—or anything for that matter—with a guy who thinks that black people were better off as slaves. (Besides that, "Cliven Bundy Is a Terrible Racist" is a much sexier headline than "Let's Talk About Land Use Policy.")

There are no obvious reasons why black people couldn’t support Bundy’s position against the federal government. As UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler explains in his book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, the modern guns-and-property rights movement has its roots, at least tactically speaking, in the1960s Black Panther Party. Driven by the suspicion that the federal government was unwilling to protect the property rights of African Americans, the Black Panthers taught new recruits that “the gun is the only thing that will free us—gain us our liberation.” And while the showdown at Bundy Ranch has frequently been compared to the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident, an equally apt comparison can be made to the 1985 police bombing of a Philadelphia row house occupied by members of the black liberation collective MOVE.


You can make the argument that certain libertarian positions might appeal to some black voters—for instance, the government's mass incarceration of young black men is at least partially to blame for the problems faced by those communities. But despite the GOP’s new push to broaden its support among minority voters in the wake of the disastrous 2012 elections, Republicans didn’t do much to help themselves when it came to Bundy. Eager to respond to Sean Hannity’s cause célèbre, Paul and Cruz, along with Nevada’s Republican Senator Dean Heller and Governor Brian Sandoval, jumped on the Bundy bandwagon, but were shocked, shocked to find out that the longtime county supremacy–supporting rancher doesn’t like black people. This is particularly unfortunate for Paul, who has put in some very real efforts trying to win over minority groups on school choice and mandatory minimum sentencing reform, but can’t seem to shake his associations to fringy racists.

In an ironic twist, Glenn Beck has been the conservative voice of reason on Bundy. The Tea Party media mogul, who recently expressed contrition for his role “in helping tear the country apart,” has been warning his talk radio listeners about Bundy for weeks.

“It is hard, because we believe the government is out of control,” Beck said on his program Thursday. But, he added of Bundy, “if he really thinks… that slaves had a family life, just that shows you how unhinged from reality this guy is! You’ve got to distance yourself. You must know who you are standing next to at all times.”

Unless Republicans start taking Beck’s advice to heart, Bundy probably won’t be the last racist rancher they find themselves standing next to.

Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter.