Cliven Bundy's abhorrent, racist comparison of slavery to federal poverty assistance bears a striking resemblance to common claims from conservative media, who have frequently invoked slavery to describe the supposed damage "the welfare state" has done to black Americans.
Nevada rancher Bundy, who was praised by conservative media for engaging in an armed standoff with federal agents after refusing to pay decades worth of federal grazing fees on public land, on April 19 questioned whether black Americans were "better off as slaves" or "better off under government subsidy," telling a reporter in a racist rant:
"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."
As Slate's Jamelle Bouie noted, Bundy's repugnant rhetoric sounds familiar -- it's the same logic behind many right-wing criticisms of the social safety net. Media Matters has been tracking this type of offensive rhetoric for years.
During the fight over health care reform, Rush Limbaugh claimed that "It won't be a matter of whether you have coverage or don't have coverage. What'll matter is that all of us will be slaves; we'll become slaves to the arbitrary and inhumane decisions of distant bureaucrats working in Washington where there's no competition, nobody you can go to if you don't like what you hear from the bureaucrats that you have to deal with."
When Glenn Beck was a host on Fox News, he had an obsession with comparing things to slavery, including the claim that progressive policies created "slavery to government, welfare, affirmative action, regulation, control," and that "big government never lifts anybody out of poverty. It creates slaves." In 2008, Jim Quinn, the co-host of the radio show The War Room with Quinn & Rose, was forced to apologize for comparing "slave[s] in the Old South" to welfare recipients today, when he claimed that the only "difference" was that the "slave had to work for" the benefits Quinn said they received.
In his 2008 book Let Them In, The Wall Street Journal editorial board member Jason Riley argued that the Great Society programs of the 1960s were ultimately worse for black families than slavery, writing "The black family survived slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, but the well-intentioned Great Society sounded its death knell."
More recently, Riley promoted the twisted logic of George Mason University's Walter Williams (who has often guest-hosted The Rush Limbaugh Show), who claimed that because more black children live in single-mother families now, welfare "destroy[ed] the black family" more than slavery:
During Reconstruction and up until the 1940s, 75% to 85% of black children lived in two-parent families. Today, more than 70% of black children are born to single women. "The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn't do, what Jim Crow couldn't do, what the harshest racism couldn't do," Mr. Williams says. "And that is to destroy the black family."
Ted Nugent, National Rifle Association board member and a favorite of conservative media, has become infamous for his extreme racism for calling President Obama a subhuman mongrel -- but Nugent also used the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech to claim that the Great Society programs were "responsible for more destruction to black America than the evils of slavery and the KKK combined." In a 2011 Washington Times column, Nugent also suggested that the Democratic Party is the "modern-day slave master" to low-income Americans.
Vox's Matt Yglesias noted the irony of Bundy criticizing the government for assisting Americans through federal programs, when he himself has benefited from federal subsidies which keep the cost of grazing low for ranchers like himself. And though the abhorrent comparison of slavery to welfare is ridiculous on its face, it's worth noting that federal benefit programs have been vital in keeping Americans out of poverty -- in fact, federal programs today are cutting poverty nearly in half, whereas in 1967 they only reduced poverty by a single percentage point.
Conservative media may finally renounce Bundy and his lawless cause following his racist remarks; but they should also renounce this harmful, inaccurate comparison.
UPDATED: Here's the video of Bundy's racist rant: