The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Opinion

April 7, 2014

Memo to GOP: Poverty isn't just about race

Why does so much of our talk about race and poverty leave us Americans spinning our wheels? One big reason is etiquette. What is said often matters less than who says it.

An illustrative example of this paralyzing paradox recently was exposed, appropriately enough, by a comedian — Bill Maher’s guests on his HBO “Real Time” show.

His guests were criticizing House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and 2016 presidential hopeful. Ryan recently touched off a powder keg by hinting he would focus on work requirements to deal with the “real culture problem,” the “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular of ... generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”

Panelist W. Kamau Bell, an African-American comedian, ripped Ryan’s reasoning. “You can’t blame the people in the inner city, blacks and Latinos,” said Bell, “for not having jobs when there are no jobs to give in the inner city.”

I would agree with that and so, to an extent, would Maher. Yet the host interrupted his guests with another quote: “When it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can’t be bothered. They’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”

That, too, sounded like Ryan, but as Maher pointed out it actually came from first lady Michelle Obama’s commencement speech at historically black Bowie State University last spring.

“Is something less true if a white person says it?” Maher asked.

Bell responded with a familiar defense. “She was talking to black people,” he said. “We talk to each other differently than we talk in front of you.”

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