Cliven Bundy: Another conservative folk hero exposes racial nerve

Cliven Bundy: I'm not a racist
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Story highlights

  • Politicians back away from Cliven Bundy's comments on blacks, welfare and slaves
  • Bundy, Ted Nugent and Phil Robertson have all echoed similarly insensitive sentiments
  • Experts on race and politics say such comments speak to an active fringe element in America
  • Politicians must tread carefully, experts say, in embracing such cause célèbres

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's remarks about whether "the Negro" fared better under slavery represents the latest in a series of incendiary racial comments from a new crop of folk heroes embraced in some conservative circles.

"They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton," Bundy said to reporters, according to The New York Times.

"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," he was quoted as saying.

Bundy, 67, a rancher whose much-publicized land dispute with the federal government endeared him to conservatives, defended his comments as idle thoughts.

"In my mind I'm wondering, are they better off being slaves, in that sense, or better off being slaves to the United States government, in the sense of the subsidies? I'm wondering. That's what. And the statement was right. I am wondering," he said Thursday on "The Peter Schiff Show."

Bundy stood by those comments in interviews with CNN on Thursday and Friday.

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GOP running from Bundy's comments
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Tensions escalate: Rancher defies feds
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That defense included a tense exchange Friday morning with "New Day" anchor Chris Cuomo.

"Maybe I sinned ... and maybe I don't know what I actually said. ... If I say Negro or black or slave ... if those people cannot take those kind of words and not be (offended), then Martin Luther King hasn't got his job done yet. ... We need to get over this prejudice stuff," Bundy said.

"I don't think I'm wrong," he also told CNN's Bill Weir on Thursday night. "I think I'm right."

But politicians such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a potential 2016 presidential GOP contender, Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada and other conservatives scrambled to distance themselves from the controversy.

"His remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him," Paul said in a statement.

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Heller "completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy's appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way," according to his spokesman, Chandler Smith.

The Republican National Committee said Bundy's comments were "completely beyond the pale. Both highly offensive and 100% wrong on race."

But experts on race and politics say the comments, much like those of rocker Ted Nugent, who created a firestorm when he called President Barack Obama a "subhuman mongrel," also speak to complicated and deeply fraught cultural tensions running beneath the surface in some segments of America.

"We are looking at some of the 'last white men standing,' " Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies professor at Duke University, said of demographic shifts that show minorities now represent more than half of the nation's population born in 2010 and 2011, according to the most recent census data.

"His comments represent that, and people rally around him because of this idea that white men are under siege. They are calling out the political establishment to stand by them," he said.

Over the next several generations, political experts say minority voters will become more of a power base in the Deep South, the Southwest and in California.

During the 2012 presidential election, Republicans faced huge losses among minorities and women, prompting the GOP to re-examine outreach to those groups.

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But Bundy's comments -- much like those of Nugent and "Duck Dynasty " star Phil Robertson, who shared during an interview with GQ last year pastoral recollections of blacks "singing and happy" as he and his family worked alongside them in Louisiana cotton fields -- speak to a certain politically active fringe element, political experts say.

Among those who support views of limited government, there is often a "higher than average endorsement of views that could be seen as racial resentment," said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University.

"What this reflects is that there are groups of people who have not been accepted by politically correct circles and have never learned to frame their comments in a palatable fashion. They take pride in that," Gillespie said. "The articulation of their views is somewhat fringe, but the underlying attitude is not. They are a minority viewpoint, but they are a large minority."

And that's put politicians who have previously embraced men such as Bundy, Nugent and Robertson as cause célèbres in an awkward position.

For instance, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, his state's Republican nominee for governor, took heat from some quarters when Nugent appeared at a campaign event for him this year. Abbott's campaign said it did not endorse Nugent's comments.

Other Republicans viewed as potential presidential candidates, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and the state's governor, Rick Perry, also distanced themselves from Nugent's remarks. Paul said an apology was in order, which Nugent eventually offered for using the term.

Conservative radio host Sean Hannity said on his show that he worries Democrats will now use Bundy's "repugnant" and "despicable" comments to paint everyone on the far right as racists.

The Democratic National Committee pounced on Bundy's remarks.

"If you ever want to be taken seriously for your outreach efforts, you might want to start by not defending racists," DNC spokesman Mo Elleithee said in a statement.

Opinion: Conservative hero is racist rancher? Didn't see that one coming