Paul Ryan triggered a firestorm of recrimination this week. Speaking recently on Bill Bennett’s Morning in America radio program, the Wisconsin Republican and self-styled budget wonk linked poverty to “this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
Setting aside the factual claim—the notion that poverty is especially concentrated in America’s inner cities is an increasingly antiquated one—these comments elicited a quick and forceful rebuke from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who decried them as “a thinly veiled racial attack.” She explained: “[W]hen Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’”
Ryan has since backpedaled, protesting that race was nowhere in his thoughts: “This has nothing to do whatsoever with race. It never even occurred to me. This has nothing to do with race whatsoever.”
Maybe so, but there’s a history here that the Republican Party can’t ignore—one that explains why Lee was so quick to jump on his comments, why the Congressional Black Caucus announced themselves “deeply troubled” by remarks they described as “highly offensive” and why so many others have sharply criticized Ryan.
By calling out his use of “code words,” Lee put Ryan in the company of past politicians who have blown the proverbial dog whistle—using surreptitious references to race to garner support from anxious voters. Examples of dog whistling include Barry Goldwater’s endorsement of “states’ rights”; Richard Nixon’s opposition to “forced busing”; Ronald Reagan’s blasts against “welfare queens”; and George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad.