Last year, Paula Dean admitted to using the word “nigger” and became the focus of intense public outrage. Companies broke ties with Dean and the Food Network decided not to renew her contract. Rep. Paul Ryan, in contrast, asserted last month that “in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working” that is contributing to poverty in America. While Paula Dean was the center of media and public attention for months, losing dozens of contracts and her job with the food network, Rep. Ryan has only to claim that his intent was not to be racist. He didn’t mean it, so it doesn’t count.
The thing is, it does count. Rep. Ryan is a high ranking policy maker currently on a crusade to address the crisis of poverty and unemployment in our country using solutions based on pseudo science and racist generalizations. So, unlike Paula Dean, Rep. Ryan’s racist assertions count a great deal.
As Rep. Ryan no doubt understands, “inner city” has long been a blatant code for black in this country. Using the term “inner city” is a convenient way to make racist generalizations without taking responsibility for them. In his statement, Rep. Ryan went so far as to reference the work of Charles Murray, social scientist and author of the book “The Bell Curve.” Murray, who has been identified as a “white nationalist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, claims that black people have inferior intelligence and that is the reason for social disadvantages.
Despite the frightening implications of a policy maker voicing such beliefs, Rep. Ryan has received far less criticism than Paula Dean and has not faced serious consequences for his remarks. Dean’s behavior, while offensive, is trivial by comparison. As a celebrity chef, Dean will have little impact on the future employment of African-Americans. Rep. Ryan, on the other hand, is the author of the House majority budget that aims to address the profound crisis of unemployment in our country.
And what are his solutions? Rep. Ryan’s budget cuts Pell Grants for students, increases work requirements for SNAP without providing funding for childcare, job training, or placement, and allows only 10 cities to benefit from Community Development Block Grants. Rep. Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” will cut thousands of federal jobs even though the public sector is the most important source of employment for African-Americans. According to Dr. Steven Pitts at U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, “The public sector is the largest employer of Black workers; there is a greater likelihood that a Black worker will be employed in the public sector compared to a non-Black worker; wages earned by Blacks in that industry are higher than those earned by Blacks in other sectors; and inequality within an industry is less in the public sector compared to other industries.” For Ryan, helping “inner city” men succeed means cutting corporate tax rates, gutting programs that the unemployed depend on, and continuing to reduce the public sector jobs that are the best prospect for employment for African-Americans. That’s a recipe for disaster far beyond Paula Dean’s wildest dreams.
The problem of unemployment in “inner cities,” or black communities, is not a culture of men not thinking about working, as Rep. Ryan would have us believe. The problem is structural racism. The overall unemployment rate of African-Americans is 13.2 percent – almost twice that of white Americans. We know that racial disparities in education and skills, housing and transportation, and health and incarceration are major factors in producing this difference, but that is not the whole story. According to Derrick Hamilton, associate professor of economics at the New School in New York, even when we cut across education, you still see at least a two-to-one unemployment difference. Indeed, among young workers, black individuals who have some college education end up with higher levels of unemployment than white individuals who dropped out of high school. Racial discrimination in hiring continues to limit employment for Black-Americans. On September 23, 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bank of America Corp was ordered to pay $2.18 million to 1,147 black job applicants over racial discrimination in hiring that kept qualified candidates from getting jobs.
Rep. Ryan will continue to craft budget and policy solutions that reduce the problem of structural racism to “inner city” laziness, allowing him to strip resources from cities and from the unemployed while he continues to give away billions to CEO’s and Wall Street Corporations. When we allow policy makers to blame unemployment on the unemployed while they enact policies which reward corporations for providing low-wage jobs and cut quality public sector jobs, we ensure that the unemployment crisis in our country can never be fixed. It is not only “inner cities” that will be hurt if we fail to solve the problem; it is all of us. We simply cannot afford to tolerate policy makers who use racist stereotypes and unfounded opinions to justify policies that hurt our economy and send us deeper into the hole they have created. As an elected official, isn’t it time for us to hold Paul Ryan accountable to a standard at least as high as the one we set for Paula Dean?