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Barbara Lee and Bill O’Reilly trade barbs

Rep. Barbara Lee says Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s language on poverty and race “is disgusting and divisive and should never be accepted in our national discourse.”

This all started March 12, when House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., spoke about his legislative proposals for reforming poverty programs during his appearance on Bill Bennett’s Morning in America. “We have got 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, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee said.

Lee, D-Oakland, issued a statement that same day saying Ryan’s comments were “a thinly veiled racial attack and cannot be tolerated. Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’”

Lee said that as a Budget Committee member herself, Ryan’s claims about racial dynamics of poverty “are not only statistically inaccurate, but deeply offensive.”

“Instead of demonizing ‘culture,’ and blaming black men for their poverty, Mr. Ryan should step up and produce some legitimate proposals on how to tackle poverty and racial discrimination in America,” she challenged. “His uninformed policy proposals continue to increase poverty, not solve it. My colleague is demonstrating a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the issues in urban and black communities.”

That brings us to Tuesday, when O’Reilly brought the exchange up during his interview with Ryan.

O’REILLY: So I understand you had a phone call with Ms. Lee. How did that go?

RYAN: Well, I have known Barbara for many years. Look, there was nothing racial whatsoever in what I said. And if you listen to the full context of all of my remarks, it’s pretty clear. So what I would like to do and I mentioned this is, let’s get beyond throwing baseless charges at people. Let’s not impugn people’s motives or characters and let’s have a real conversation about what we really need to do [[is]] to truly fight poverty in America. If the status quo was working so well, then we wouldn’t have to do that. It’s not.

[snip]

O’REILLY: They don’t want a conversation. With all due respect to you because I think you are a good man. They don’t want a conversation. They don’t want to solve the problem. These race hustlers make a big living, and they get voted into office, by portraying their constituents as victims, and it’s all your fault and it’s my fault, it’s the rich people’s fault, it’s the Republicans’ fault. It’s everybody’s fault except what’s going on. And what’s going on, as you know, is the dissolution of the family, and you don’t have proper supervision of children, and they grow up with no skills, and they can’t read and speak, and they have tattoos on their neck, and they can’t compete in the marketplace. And that is what is going on. But if you say that you are a racist. So, no matter what you say congressman, you are going to be branded because the race hustlers don’t want to solve the problem.

BOOM! Lee is not amused.

“Unfortunately we’ve come to expect language like ‘welfare queens,’ ‘food stamp president,’ and now ‘race hustlers’ from the right wing and Mr. O’Reilly. It is disgusting and divisive and should never be accepted in our national discourse,” she said Wednesday.

“For us to achieve the American dream for all, we must engage in this conversation that has been sparked about race and poverty, even if it is difficult for some. Racial discrimination, poverty, and income inequality remain issues that must be debated and addressed, and these kinds of ‘code words’ only get in the way of solving the real problems,” Lee said.

Congress has a responsibility to “come together to present a budget and funding priorities that create opportunity for all,” she continued. “We must make critical investments in job creation, education, and job training. Among many issues, we must address extending unemployment insurance, raising the minimum wage, enacting criminal justice reform, and securing voting rights for communities of color, so that we can truly find solutions to these critical issues.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.