Is Paul Ryan Racist?

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This post first appeared on Author and legal scholar Ian Haney López recently appeared on Moyers & Company to talk with Bill about his book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.

Paul Ryan during a campaign rally at the Walter B. Waetjen Auditorium at Cleveland State University in Cleveland. October 2012. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Paul Ryan during a campaign rally at the Walter B. Waetjen Auditorium at Cleveland State University in Cleveland. October 2012. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Paul Ryan triggered a firestorm of recrimination this week. Speaking recently on Bill Bennett’s Morning in America radio program, the Wisconsin Republican and self-styled budget wonk linked poverty to “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.”

Setting aside the factual claim — the notion that poverty is especially concentrated in America’s inner cities is an increasingly antiquated one — these comments elicited a quick and forceful rebuke from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who decried them as “a thinly veiled racial attack.” She explained: “[W]hen Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’”

Ryan has since backpedaled, protesting that race was nowhere in his thoughts: “This has nothing to do whatsoever with race. It never even occurred to me. This has nothing to do with race whatsoever.”

Maybe so, but there’s a history here that the Republican Party can’t ignore — one that explains why Lee was so quick to jump on his comments, why the Congressional Black Caucus announced themselves “deeply troubled” by remarks they described as “highly offensive” and why so many others have sharply criticized Ryan.

By calling out his use of “code words,” Lee put Ryan in the company of past politicians who have blown the proverbial dog whistle — using surreptitious references to race to garner support from anxious voters. Examples of dog whistling include Barry Goldwater’s endorsement of “states’ rights”; Richard Nixon’s opposition to “forced busing”; Ronald Reagan’s blasts against “welfare queens”; and George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad.

These instances of racial pandering typically have been treated as disconnected eruptions, when in fact the GOP has made a concerted effort to win support through racial appeals. This pattern is so entrenched — and so well known — that two different chairs of the Republican National Committee have acknowledged and apologized for this strategy.

“By the seventies and into the eighties and nineties,” RNC chair Ken Mehlman said in a 2005 speech before the NAACP, “Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.” Five years later, his successor Michael Steele similarly acknowledged that “for the last 40-plus years we had a ‘Southern Strategy’ that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South.”

Despite the mea culpas, race baiting has continued: recall New Gingrich’s 2012 tarring of Barack Obama as “the best food-stamp president in American history.” Or consider another Gingrich jibe from the last election: “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works,” he claimed. “So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.”

What, then, of Paul Ryan? Was he dog whistling? To many, his strong echoing of Gingrich, coupled with the larger GOP history of racial pandering, suggested so. Nor did Ryan help himself by invoking the conservative scholar Charles Murray — a man who co-wrote a controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve, tying intelligence to race, and who in 2000 explained that genetics will likely show, “One reason that we still have poverty in the United States is that a lot of poor people are born lazy.”

But what of Ryan’s insistence he did not consider race whatsoever, or his later explanation that he had been “inarticulate” in his comments? Perhaps Ryan genuinely did not recognize the racial narrative embedded in his remarks about an inner city culture that devalues work. But at best, this suggests that Ryan has uncritically adopted the charged rhetoric of his party without understanding its racial undertones.

Less charitably, in weighing Ryan’s protestations of innocence, we should be clear that denying racial intent is par for the course in dog whistling. The whole point of speaking in coded terms is to transmit racial messages that can be defended as not about race at all. Today’s broadly shared anti-racist ethos condemns naked appeals to racial solidarity; those politicians who nevertheless seek to trade on racial provocations must do so in ways that maintain plausible deniability.

Another defense is to insist that Ryan is no bigot. Here’s one version, from Republican political strategist Ron Christie: “Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is not racist nor did he blow a ‘dog whistle’ to launch a thinly veiled racist attack against black people. I offer this from the perspective of someone who has known Paul for more than 20 years: there is not a racist bone in his body.” The fact that Christie is black no doubt lends credibility to his testimony.

Ian Haney López on Dog Whistle Politics
But this retort misses the point. Dog whistling is not rooted in fiery hatred but rather in cool calculation — it’s the strategic, carefully considered decision to win votes by stirring racial fears in society. Suppose we stipulate that Ryan is no bigot. So what? The question is not one of animus on Ryan’s part, but of whether — as a tactical matter — he sought to garner support by indirectly stimulating racial passions.

Of course, an individual’s mindset in any particular instance is almost impossible to know. We cannot be certain what Ryan intended. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that Ryan employed rhetoric closely connected to a dismal history of Republican racial demagoguery.

Barbara Lee was correct to respond forcefully. In our political culture, dog whistling all too often takes the form of warnings about a “tailspin of culture” in the “inner cities” and “generations of men not even thinking about working.” Sharply rebuked, hopefully Ryan and others will think twice — or, if Ryan is to be believed, then think for the first time — about using political rhetoric imbued with ugly racial stereotypes.

Ian Haney López is a law professor at UC Berkeley, a senior fellow at Demos and the author of three books. His writings have appeared across a range of sources, from the Yale Law Journal to The New York Times. Follow Ian Haney López on Twitter: @dogwhistlerace
Ian Haney López, a UC Berkeley law professor and senior fellow at Demos, is the author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (2014). His writings have appeared across a range of sources, from the Yale Law Journal to The New York Times. Follow Ian Haney López on Facebook and Twitter: @IanHaneyLopez
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  • Pam Barone

    Paul Ryan’s statement that poverty is a bigger problem in the inner city, reveals something much worse than racism. He professes to be a numbers man, capable of solving all the demographic and budget issues for this great nation. And yet his numbers are, once again, factually incorrect. Poverty rates are higher in rural areas than urban areas. If he can’t get those basic facts right, how does he expect to help the predominantly white people who live out in the country?

  • Anonymous

    If Ryan didn’t recognize the vile racism of his statements, then he is very, very stupid, and who believes that?

  • Kat Hay

    Another very important (imho) element in this discussion, somehow MIA, is the whole question of consciousness. Awareness. The only two options acknowledged in this piece as sources of racial dog-whistling are “fiery hatred” and “cool calculation.” I submit a third, which is ignorance, largely cultural. Racism is a deep and largely unconscious social disorder. If we fail to recognize that there are many people in our midst who don’t understand it, though they are afflicted with it, and deny it in self-defense because they can’t handle seeing themselves as morally impaired. Racism in our culture is insidious, pervasive, institutional, and afflicts everyone, including its victims. If we only vilify the more heavily afflicted, we shut down the opportunity for them to experience revelation. If we own the problem and see our role as primarily educative, we open up greater possibilities for healing one of the most harmful of all social disorders. Much as we would like to isolate it in a few “bad” people, the truth is much more complex and we are all part of it. People are not equivalent to their diseases. We are right to call out the disease/disorder/affliction, but the person is an infinite, malleable consciousness capable of transcending its own limitations and disabilities.

  • Kat Hay

    His belief system overrides his ability to apply critical thinking. He literally doesn’t SEE what IS. That’s the problem. Maybe he’s just an awful person, but that’s a conclusion I would avoid until I couldn’t avoid it any longer. It makes more sense to me to attribute it to ignorance and cultural bias.

  • Ginny

    What about the poor along the Texas-Mexico border. They’re in dire straits. Also, many people in southern states are incredibly poor, and some are working two and three jobs just to keep their heads above water. There are a lot of people making minimum wage who are middle age and have children, but are not making ends meet. Usually they’re exhausted and overwhelmed at their circumstances. Paul Ryan is out of touch.

  • Anonymous

    The phrase “inner city” refers to race. It also conjures up a limited and somewhat outdated picture of who is poor. There are rural (white and Latino) poor. There are also many middle-class people (mostly but not all white) slipping into poverty due to layoffs, medical costs, etc. If your beef is with people who have never worked and don’t want to, then why cut extended unemployment benefits that, by definition, are going to people who’ve worked fairly recently?

  • Joseph Newman

    The Republican Party no longer exists. It is now the reconfigured Democratic Party of the Old South with a different label. The Republican Party cannot be called the Party of Lincoln anymore.

  • Anonymous

    Presumably Ryan knew that Bill Bennett, his host, said in 2005, “You could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” The question isn’t whether Ryan the person is racist; it’s whether he trades in racist ideas in order to advance his agenda. Given the content of his remarks, as well as his choice to offer them on Bennett’s show, it seems pretty clear that he does.

  • Owen Johnson

    Not to defend Ryan or dispute the seeming dog-whistle politics, but has it occurred to anyone that he was playing to his base by making it “takers vs makers” and “us vs them?” All the voter restriction and suppression is aimed the the Democratic base: large city, urban. And look at the Gerrymandered districts: They separated the rural Red from the urban Blue in order to create more Red districts, with lower populations. So Ryan would try to create the illusion that poverty is mostly in the inner cities, it’s “them” (Democratic voters) causing the problems. Regardless of race.

    It very well could be that Ryan was thinking in racial stereotypes, but maybe not. Either way, though, he was wrong. The “cultural” problem in inner cities, as well as anywhere else, is a culture of not enough jobs and low pay for the jobs that do exist.

  • Pallas Athena

    Of course Ryan knew that what he was saying targeted inner-city African Americans. This is Chapter One of the GOP Handbook. The beauty of social networking sites like Facebook is that we can see, in real time, what Republicans really think about race. Right now, I am going to go to one of their most popular sites, The Tea Party, to find posts made in the past 24 hours. What do you want to bet that at least two titles are overtly racist? Here goes:
    1. “Welfare was never intended to be a career opportunity. Like if you agree.”
    2. “You won’t believe what Michelle “#BanBossy” Obama called women the other day!” An unflattering photo of Michelle Obama with her mouth open accompanies this post.
    3. “Issa: ‘Cummings is an Obstacle to Congressional Oversite in Obama IRS Probe.'” This includes a photo of Issa glaring at Cummings.
    4. ” Democrat Sen. Paul Schumer threatens the GOP: Pass Amnesty or Dictator Obama will do it anyway.” (Accompanied by a video and an unflattering photo of Obama grinning.)
    5. ” As Putin invades Ukraine, Obama Responds to Mom Jeans Criticism.” (Photo of Obama riding a bicycle wearing jeans.)
    6. “Over 7 Million American’s (sic) Health Care Plans Cancelled after I said 37 times “If you like your health care you can keep it PERIOD. But it’s Bush’s fault and you are a racist so shut up.” (This is superimposed over a doctored-up photo of Obama that makes him look downright evil.)
    7. A photo of what looks like a successful white businessman features this quote: “Since liberals want to force government to make me pay my employees higher wages when I make a profit, does that also mean liberals will use government to force employees to contribute to my business when I am losing money?”
    All these explains why Ryan’s comments have to be racist at the core: hatred of minority groups defines the entire Tea Party Movement. The last one reveals another core value: underpay unworthy workers and defend the white CEO who rightfully keeps all the profits.
    Right wingers like Ryan can no longer pretend to hide behind the Bible and the flag. It really is hate that motivates them.

  • Marty Lee

    I believe many men, and I presume we, like Paul Ryan, are talking about men, view work much like Maynard G. Krebs not because they are lazy but rather because work today has little value beyond what a man is compensated for it. Both political parties are bought. Both have pursued neoliberal policies that include the deregulation of financial markets and the dissolution of trade barriers put in place to protect domestic economies and culture. Such policies have been great for corporate CEO’s and large shareholders while making work pay far less. All things considered, Paul Ryan’s moralizing about “inner city” men not “learning the value and culture of work” is not only racist it is a cruel joke typical of the cynicism that defines the Republican Party.

  • Marty Lee

    The Bible perfectly characterized men like Paul Ryan. Whether or not you have any religious inclinations, read Matthew 25: 31-46. Hint: Ryan and his Tea Baggers are Goats.

  • Marty Lee

    That reminds me. Dennis Kucinich lost his office to Republican gerrymandering in Ohio..

  • Mickey Askins

    The GOP is the party of the John Birch Society. William F Buckley warned them, but now it is what they desire.

  • Anonymous

    What offended me the most was the comment the Gingrinch made which assumed that doing janitor work and cleaning toilets would prepare urban children of color for the skills they need to survive the future. This kind of neuro-processing date you.
    How about providing every child the opportunity to participate in a highly technical skill like playing the violin. When will these folks cry out emphatically about the lack of access to music and arts in our undeserved urban schools. Lets make sure every child has access to meaningful opportunities to develop their technical and creative skills for the future of America.

  • Paul

    Paul Ryan’s hometown of Janesville is about 60 miles from where I live in Milwaukee Wisconsin. Milwaukee once had the highest rate of employment of African Americans in the country, and now has the highest rate of unemployment for African Americans in the country. (of course Mr. Ryan had no thoughts of race in his comments) It strikes me as obscene that in the city where I live, 55 to 58 percent of African American males are unemployed, and rarely do our Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett, our Republican Governor Scott Walker, or our Democratic president speak out about what is essentially a tragedy, and certainly contrary to the idea of “American Exceptional ism” so often heard from the mouths of our politicians. That Paul Ryan or Knute Gingrich either by intent or otherwise says something racist is no surprise, what I want to know is what he or any of these other politicians are going to do about the people in my city who want to work and can’t find a job.

  • BBQDad

    No, the “…deregulation of financial markets and the dissolution of trade barriers…” were not the result of neoliberal policies. Rather, these actions, along with many others, were the result of Neo-Conservative policies—policies whose effect has been to destroy the value of the American worker.

  • BBQDad

    Ryan does not expect to help poor anybody—White, Black, Native American, Latino… Quite the opposite: Ryan and his family-busting, community-destroying ilk want to drive down the real, inflation-adjusted, relative market value of the American worker as low as possible, and to do so as quickly as possible. Anything else they say is camouflage and/or propaganda.

  • Pope

    Racist or not, there needs to be a way to talk about the reality that there is such a culture of inner city men for whom work is not an automatic expectation / aspiration. The knee-jerk labeling often prevents us from valuable discussions of vaid issues. Its tme we stopped making excuses; that’s just another kind of racism, because it just lowers expectations.

  • Pat Branigan

    What an excellent point about work being just a means to get money. Take Steve Jobs’ father who was a carpenter. He taught Steve that things should look as good on the inside as the outside and so Apple computers were works of art and technology. When we got away from doing work that created beautiful things that we could be proud of we cut our selves off from our ourselves we became other. Dredging at jobs just to lie up huge amounts of money oreven just to survive and in the process essentially killing your Self does little for your humanity. You soon leave it behind. Most people today do not understand what fulfilling work is. Hoarding stacks of money in a bank by making deals is not fulfilling at all as there is nothing beautiful produced. It merely eats your soul.

  • Pat Branigan

    Paul Ryan just hates anyone who is not rich because they remind him of the problems his family had after his father died. They remind him that he had to use SSI “handouts” to go to college, it reminds him that he was “below” other people at one time and he is ashamed. Instead of just admitting it and realizing his own accomplishments he strikes out at others who need the same help. Classic repression of self loathing.

  • bluehawk222

    This Atwater quote sums it all up and always will:
    “You start out in 1954 by saying, “N-word, n-word, n-word.” By 1968 you can’t say “N-word” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N-word, N-word.”

  • Anonymous

    He also needs to go to areas where rural white folks have been in poverty for generations. What a mind blower for him that would be.

  • Anonymous

    Kat….you are so right….and as some say down here in the south….”you can’t fix stupid”. On the other hand, we might be able to fix ignorance…I am just not sure how.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Pam! Good observation.

  • Anonymous

    What Paul Ryan said is definitely racist, moreover, it reflects how uninformed and out of touch Paul Ryan is with reality for Americans. Yes, I know poor inner city poor people and poor people who are black / brown. But alternatively, I know inner poor city and rural people who are white. Both groups have a distaste for jobs that pay minimum wage. Honestly, so do I. Many, turn to drugs and crime: black and white, rural and urban. Why on earth would this surprise anybody?

    Offer people a chance to work their way up and many will grab it……offer them a slave job and most will refuse it – color and location are not factors. Very sadly, Paul Ryan and his party don’t understand this.

  • Mmcneil

    I agree with Pope who commented earlier. Let’s discuss the facts at hand, such as the decline in the cities and the failure to address chronic problems in places like Detroit. The politics of race are to silence voces of concern wth charges of racism.

  • MorgaineSwann

    Is Paul Ryan racist? He’s a RACIST, SEXIST, CLASSIST, AGEIST, homophobic and a smug, self-centered a**hole. He has become the embodiment of the evil that infests Washington DC right now. He thinks he made it to Congress because he’s morally superior to the rest of us. He thinks he knows what we need better than we do. He thinks those of us who aren’t in Congress are inferior or uninspired. He thinks women are property and black people are lazy. He needs his ass kicked and I hope, when the Universal Karmic backlash he’s got coming hits him, that I get to watch it happen.

  • Sieben Stern

    you mean the dredging jobs that the workers in china do to make those overpriced works of ‘art’?
    I wonder how much more work one has to do to own one of those apple fanboy products instead of going with a lower priced option. But that doesn’t have the shiny logo and samsung doesn’t make art.

    I cringe at your idea of beauty… :/

  • Anonymous

    He knows all about rural poverty but can’t say anything about it because that is his base.

  • Anonymous

    Of course the left supports creating the cradle-to-grave welfare state ensuring them of generations of dependent poverty stricken democrat voters doomed to a life of poverty and misery.

    Unemployment among inner-city men of all races is estimated to run roughly twice the national rate, while unemployment among black inner-city men in cities such as Milwaukee and Detroit has been estimated to exceed 50 percent; 71 percent of working-age white men are in the labor force, but the corresponding number for black men is only 63.6 percent — and going down. New York City manages to graduate barely half of its black male students from high school — and among high-school dropouts, two-thirds reach the age of 26 without ever having held a full-time job lasting at least one year. And perhaps most significant, the vast majority of blacks are born out of wedlock. You could not come up with a more effective system for producing poverty if you tried. If Paul Ryan is a racist for criticizing those conditions, what shall we call the people who run New York City’s public schools or those who govern Detroit — the people who help create those conditions?

  • George H. Baldwin

    People like you and Paul Ryan are very articulate when describing the problem, yet at a loss for words regarding any sort of solution. Oh, that’s right: Romney had a solution: self deportation! Back to Africa? Maybe instead of Food Stamps, a President Ryan would offer these inner city men a one-way ticket back where they came from, so America can go back to being all White, just like Germany pre WWII. Disgusting.

  • Dan Wright

    Paul Ryan the person might not be racist but Paul Ryan’s behavior is racist as it perpetuates white supremacy. It is not the intent but the impact by which we must judge his behavior. To be accountable he / we must be willing to take responsibility not just for our intent but for the impact of our behavior.


    Yes, label Ryan “racist” for pointing out the facts of life in the U.S. That goes a long way toward solving the problem.

  • Marty Lee

    Google the term ‘neoliberalism.’ What is being ‘liberalized’ or lessened are restrictions on financial markets, trade barriers, environmental and consumer protections, etc. Anything to benefit the members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. BTW: I know these terms can seem confusing. Perhaps we should call it for what it is: Economic Libertinism.

  • John K

    Millions more white people get food stamps. Ryan is engaging in racist, non-fact-based ranting.

    Remember that Joe McCarthy was elected to the Senate by Wisconsin voters. So, Ryan was elected to the House from Wisconsin.

    Shame on Wisconsin! Business and government have weakened the unions, and Gov. Walker has done more damage.

    These reckless politicians were elected by Wisconsin voters.

    And that scares lots of Wisconsinites, present and past (moi).

  • Constructive_Feedback

    I am curious to know why none of the guests that Mr Moyers has trotted upon his television set for so many decades have never been asked the question: “With so many decades of the ‘Inner City’ people investing their hope for development through the construction of the Progressive Machine that now represents every single seat of power in their community – WHY has there been such insignificant uplift?”

    More importantly – “Why don’t the Inner City ‘Least Of These’ see the people that they voted for as ‘The Establishment’ and begin to act defensively against this leadership as they would an ‘Investment Adviser’ who accepted their money but gave squandered returns?”

  • NotARedneck

    ” ‘Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the
    other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I
    am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.’ ”

    Hardly. If politics is about winning and you have a group of policies that are so despicable, harmful, short sighted and stupid (but will put lots of cash in your pockets and especially the pockets of your financial supporters), you will need to find voters who can be convinced to vote for you. From any reasonable analysis, RepubliCON support comes from 3 areas:
    1) tax evaders and other economic criminals and sociopaths who directly benefit from their policies.
    2) people who vote that way because their parents did.
    3) white, male, racist imbeciles – the RepubliCONs loyal foot soldiers.

    Without the third group, the RepubliCONs would either be polling between 15 and 20% or would have dumped the stupidity and criminality by now.

  • NotARedneck

    The New deal policies NEVER reached the inner cities and were eliminated decades ago, when southern/rural racist scum realized that the policies that helped them would have the effect of reducing their leg up on minorities, should they be brought to all Americans.

    What we have now is just a maintenance program keeping people from starving and then rioting. Now the right wing criminals want to eliminate this so that there will be more money for the security state. Corporate America has gone multi-national. They do nothing for the US and its people but expect that they will get free military support to enable them to successfully exploit the Third World.

    Iraq is a classic example. The US middle class tax payer is stuck with a multi-trillion dollar bill and the Haliburtons of the corporate world have made 100s of billions from this.

    Prisons are very similar. The state pays 10s of thousands a year to incarcerate people for no reason while the corporate parasites that use the prisoner’s labour make a fraction of this – at no cost to them.

  • NotARedneck

    If corporations didn’t move their jobs away from these places, as fast as they could and can, there would be a much higher employment rate.

    There is a lot of evidence that corporate America moved those jobs, that they actually kept in the US, to back waters where white racist imbeciles abound. Corp execs love those scum because they are easy to manipulate into voting based on racist and other idiotic reasons. Then they get the tax cuts that they want.

  • NotARedneck

    Yes. “Neo Liberal” is actually a right wing criminal trash idea. The name given it has helped the wealthy parasites, who benefit from it, immensely, since it has confused many.

  • Anonymous

    He is a bigot pure and simple and Ron Christie is exhibiting Stockholm Syndrome.
    These deluded libertarians want nothing more than the right to be as bigoted as they want without interference from the state.

  • Anonymous

    You show a clear lack of comprehension of this issue and the history of it.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the video and I have just made my first donation to a 2014 candidate. I live half way across the country but really liked what this guy had to say and I would love to see Ryan get a pink slip!

  • Dude

    I am no big fan of Paul Ryan. That said I notice that every time someone comments on an issue that questions ,in any way, the classic liberal viewpoint they get balstied and labeled here. There will be no solutions to the difficult issues being “discussed” here until the discourse becomes a lot more open minded and civil. If someone does not one hundred percent agree with someone else’s perspective that does not mean they should be dismissed out of hand. Be open minded. It is obvious that the status quo is not working. The left can be every bit as closed minded as the right.

  • Anonymous

    certainly! of course he’s a racist. along with shrill obiley. absolutely!

  • rg9rts

    If he didn’t know it was racist he darn well should have. However I don’t expect much more from Lyin Ryan.

  • Cary King

    Is Rep. Paul Ryan a racist?