Cliven Bundy on 'the Negro': Why his words aren't a huge surprise

The Nevada rancher who took on the BLM now posits that 'the Negro' may be better off as slaves. The link between racially offensive views and a certain strain of far-right politics seen at the Cliven Bundy ranch is well established, analysts say.

John Locher/Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP
Flanked by armed supporters, rancher Cliven Bundy speaks at a protest camp near Bunkerville, Nev., April 18, 2014.

The “Battle of Bunkerville” – the ongoing grazing standoff between old-school Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal Bureau of Land Management – was, of course, never just about cattle grazing. But it has now taken a turn that, at first glance, seems bizarrely unrelated: "the Negro.”

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” Mr. Bundy, who with help from armed supporters won a standoff with the BLM last week over cattle grazing rights, told admirers and a New York Times reporter at a press conference Wednesday. “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.”

Conservatives who had framed Bundy’s fight with the BLM as an act of patriotism are now backing off their support in light of his comments, which Sen. Dean Heller (R) of Nevada, who had previously lauded Bundy, called “appalling and racist.”

Yet the connection between racially offensive views and a certain strain of tea party politics at the Bundy ranch is not all that surprising, some political analysts argue. Race and segregation have, after all, long been defended in the context of the 10th Amendment’s state sovereignty guarantees.

The historical debate about race and white supremacy “is where the really extreme ideas of state sovereignty come from, and they were revived in the 1940s in the explicit context of resisting racial desegregation and maintaining the system of white supremacy,” says Garrett Epps, a University of Baltimore law professor and the author of “Wrong and Dangerous: Ten Right-Wing Myths About Our Constitution,” in a phone conversation.

In that way, Bundy’s opinions about black Americans “are not random views," adds Mr. Epps. "They’ve been kept alive, and they’re part and parcel of the idea that people should come out of the hills with guns and threaten to shoot federal officials. They go together. It’s not random.”

Bundy vaulted to public attention as the spearhead of a new militia movement in the US, in which disparate groups have been emboldened by the armed standoff's success in resisting federal agents. The BLM decision not to challenge dozens of armed men who came to Bundy’s side was a unique moment, historians say, even as Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada called them “domestic terrorists.”

Bundy’s comrades in arms are a hodgepodge of the American right: militia members, tea party activists, and county sheriffs who all came together to push for “populist constitutionalism” – the idea that interpretation of the US Constitution falls ultimately to the people, not to the US Supreme Court. Under the law, however, Bundy “doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” writes John Hinderaker on the conservative "Power Line" blog. 

He would get no argument from Senator Reid, who on Thursday called on national Republican leaders to "show a united front against this kind of hateful, dangerous extremism by publicly condemning Bundy." “The bottom line is that elected officials and those in positions of power or influence have a responsibility to unite behind the basic principle that we are a country of laws, and that whatever our differences, it is unacceptable for individuals to use violence or the threat of violence to advance their radical views,” Reid said in a statement.

Meanwhile, tea party groups, some of whom rallied to Bundy’s cause, remain dogged by charges that racist attitudes are pervasive within a movement that has gained credibility on the mainstream right.

In a study released earlier this year, “Race, Ideology and the Tea Party: A Longitudinal Study,” researchers write that “the data support claims that the Tea Party is – for some white supporters at least – a racially motivated movement. Anti-black sentiment was associated with Tea Party identification across time points. This relationship, however, appeared to be masked by assertions of national decline and the embrace of libertarian ideology.”

Variations on Bundy’s views about race are "the original sin of this movement – it’s very hard to find groups that are entirely free of it,” argues Epps.

For some commentators, Bundy’s comments about "the Negro" were an unusually frank admission of deeply held convictions, some commentators noted.

“I particularly admire the way Bundy expresses some of the latest conservative thought on the subject, stripped of the sophisticated rhetoric that attempts to hide the underlying racism,” writes Jay Bookman, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Other commentators sidestepped Bundy’s incendiary phrasing – cotton, Negro, abortion – to argue against his view on the merits.

“What’s … galling is that Bundy’s a guy currently involved in an armed standoff with law enforcement over his unpaid use of federal land to graze his cattle, and he’s the one referring to ‘the Negro’ being ‘on government subsidy,’ " writes David Swerdlick, on the Root website.

If Bundy is now a cause célèbre for those on the far right, that's not necessarily the case for many mainstream conservatives. They opted to stay on the sidelines during the BLM standoff, so Bundy’s statement may have limited backlash on conservatives more broadly.

“Sermons that begin with sentences like ‘I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro’ generally don’t end well, especially when they’re uttered by white conservative ranchers gleefully breaking federal law,” writes Tia Makarechi, in Vanity Fair. “In the wake of Bundy’s racist comments, those who stayed silent are probably thanking their lucky stars.”

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