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So, IS Paul Ryan a Racist?

Ian Haney López
Moyers & Company

Our political class is feuding about whether Rep. Paul Ryan is a racist. Rather than fearing that this donnybrook degrades political discourse, we should welcome it.

Ryan sparked the controversy when he blamed poverty on “a tailspin of culture” in our “inner cities,” while  invoking for support Charles Murray, notorious for postulating the genetic inferiority of blacks. Within hours, Rep. Barbara Lee rebuked Ryan for launching “a thinly veiled racial attack.”

Other critics immediately piled on, with a Politico piece appearing under the title “Is Paul Ryan Racist?” and Paul Krugman in The New York Times calling out Ryan for racial dog whistling. But hitting back, National Review editor Richard Lowry slammed Ryan’s critics for trying to drape him with the Klan’s white hoodand The Wall Street Journal’editorial page fumed, “Republicans are accused of racism if they ignore the least fortunate, and now they’re racist for taking poverty and its causes seriously.”

Let me come clean: I wrote Politico’s “Is Paul Ryan Racist?” piece, so I’m hardly impartial. But there are also a couple of ironies behind that title that directly demonstrate why we should welcome the row over whether Ryan is racist.

A day after Ryan’s remarks, a Politico editor solicited my thoughts, likely because I’ve recently published a book on race baiting in contemporary politics. My initial response seemed to cause consternation, however, for I proposed to argue that Ryan was being “racist” — and then to explain that racism takes various forms. More on that later. Here, the important point is that the editor balked, asking for a piece that was more “nuanced.”