Updated 9:29 p.m. ET 4/24/2014
(CNN) - What started out as a standoff over land rights may be turning into a controversy over race.
Racist comments from Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy - who earlier this month appeared to win a highly publicized standoff against federal authorities over his two-decade long illegal grazing of cattle on public land - are giving Democrats a new weapon to attack some top Republicans who earlier came to Bundy's defense.
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And the controversial comments also call into question moves by Fox News and some other conservative media that highlighted the story and painted Bundy as a hero in his battle against federal authorities.
Bundy, 67, won his standoff against federal rangers after armed militiamen came to his side. Even with the incident over, Bundy continued to talk to a dwindling crowd of media from his ranch, about 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The comments that sparked the latest controversy came this weekend when Bundy recalled to supporters about a time he drove by a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, according to a report from The New York Times.
"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro," Bundy said, "and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids - and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch - they didn't have nothing to do. They didn't have nothing for their kids to do. They didn't have nothing for their young girls to do.
"And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?" Bundy continued. "They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. 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."
What Cliven Bundy's comments on race reveal
In a press conference Thursday, Bundy defended and repeated his comments but emphasized he was merely "wondering" whether African-Americans were better off as slaves.
"And that's a question I put before the world: Are they better, or were they better then? I'm not saying I thought they should be slaves, or I wasn't even saying they was (sic) better off; I'm wondering if they're better off," he said.
Bundy said he questions whether those living under government subsidies are living as slaves to the state, but denied he held racist views.
"I might not have a very big word base or vocabulary, I guess, but let me tell you something: When I say slavery, I mean slavery...Slavery is about when you take away choices from people, and where you have forced labor," he said. "You think that's what I'm about, America? If it is, you're sure wrong, because I don't believe in any type of that stuff."
And Bundy didn't back down in an interview Thursday night with CNN's Bill Weir. He questioned whether blacks are better off now when "they don't have nothing to do with their children, their family unit is ruined (and) I don't think they have the life that they should have."
"I don't think I'm wrong," he told CNN, insisting that he'd spoken "from my heart." "I think I'm right."
Asked whether he was any more or less a "welfare queen" as those who get entitlement checks - since his cattle have been feeding off the government, literally, by eating grass on public land - Bundy said, "I might be a welfare queen, but I'll tell you I'm producing something for America and using a resource that nobody else would use or could use."
He said, "I'm putting red meat on your table. Maybe I'm not doing enough, but I'm trying."
'Comments are completely beyond the pale'
Thursday morning, hours after The New York Times story went viral, the Nevada Democratic Party put out a statement saying "These comments are reprehensible, and every Republican politician in the state of Nevada who tried to latch on to Cliven Bundy's newfound celebrity with TEA Partiers and the militia movement should be ashamed of their actions."
"Every Republican elected official who risked inciting violence to gain political capital out of Cliven Bundy now owes the people of Nevada an apology for their irresponsible behavior of putting their own political future ahead of the safety of Nevadans," added the Nevada Democrats.
Some top national Republicans quickly condemned the remarks.
Sen. Rand Paul, who originally supported Bundy's case, issued a statement Thursday morning decrying Bundy's racial comments.
"His remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him," said the Kentucky Republican, who's seriously considering a 2016 presidential run.
GOP Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who earlier called his supporters "patriots", also "completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy's appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way," according to his spokesperson, Chandler Smith.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who had not previously weighed in on the land dispute, said in a statement that "Bundy's comments are completely beyond the pale. Both highly offensive and 100% wrong on race."
Democrats had already been on the attack against Bundy before his racial comments. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – Nevada's senior senator - last week blasted Bundy's supporters as "domestic terrorists," saying they were arming themselves with automatic weapons and positioning "snipers in strategic locations."
One man, former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack told a reporter the militia were considering putting "all the women" on the front lines.
"If they're going to start shooting, it's going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers," he said.
Questions about media coverage
Some conservative-leaning pundits painted Bundy as an anti-goverment hero. Fox News' Sean Hannity was criticized by liberal media outlets for frequently hosting Bundy on his television program and appearing to defend the rancher.
Hannity said Thursday on his radio show that Bundy's "comments are beyond repugnant to me."
"They are beyond despicable to me. They are beyond ignorant to me," he said, adding that his interest in Bundy's case was entirely about government overreach.
He also chided what he called the liberal media, arguing that they ignore racist comments by Democrats and only focus on Republicans.
"Every conservative I know does not support racism, period," he said.
Another Fox News host, Greta Van Susteren, wrote on her blog Thursday morning that she condemns Bundy's comments.
Others had previously warned fellow conservatives not to get too fired up about the Nevada dispute. Conservative host Glenn Beck said on his show that "10 or 15 percent" of the people who were defending Bundy online were saying things "that are truly frightening."
"They don't care what the facts are," he said. "They just want a fight."
Tucker Carlson, founder of the conservative news outlet the Daily Caller, said on Fox that he sympathizes with the Bundys, but "it's important to point out that this land does not belong to them and that's not a minor distinction, it's the essence of private property."
For his part, Sen. Paul had also cautioned both sides, including Reid, to calm their rhetoric.
"Let's try to have a peaceful resolution to this," he said last week on Fox News.
While Republicans are now trying to distance themselves from Bundy, that's not stopping Democrats from going after them for supporting Bundy in the first place. And the Democratic National Committee says the incident is "more evidence of the shallowness of the GOP's outreach efforts."
"Remember Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson? His racist comments last December were in the same vein as Bundy's. Yet GOP leaders from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Lindsey Graham, and others rushed to defend (Robertson's) comments against a liberal assault. Republicans even invited the Duck Dynasty stars as their guests to the State of the Union!," wrote DNC Communications Director Mo Elleithee.
"And therein lies the GOP's problem. If you ever want to be taken seriously for your outreach efforts, you might want to start by not defending racists," Elleithee added.
Battle over land rights
The Bundy standoff is emblematic of the larger anti-government sentiment around the country that has been amplified with the creation of the tea party movement in 2009. But the latest move in a two-decade-long tug of war between Bundy and the federal government is bringing to light the delicate balance that has lasted between citizens in the West and the federal government over the use of federally owned land for generations.
What made Nevada rancher fight the feds?
One protester from neighboring Utah, Stephen L. Dean, 45, called the Bureau of Land Management's actions "tyranny in government." And a banner at the protest site blared: "Has the West been won? Or has the fight just begun!"
In the western states, public lands are a big deal. Almost everyone uses them or depends on them. They are key to people's recreational hiking, fishing, hunting and skiing. And they are critical to people's livelihood, as they are used to cut timber, drill oil, mine coal and ranch cattle.
Vast swaths of the land in the West are predominately public. In Nevada, for example, 87% of the state is owned by the federal government, and the Bureau of Land Management oversees 245 million acres of public lands mostly west of the Mississippi River, not including the lands overseen by the National Forest Service and half a dozen other federal agencies.
In Nevada, ranchers depend on the federal lands for their livelihood. The government began allowing the use of the land in 1877 to promote the economic development of dry, difficult-to-cultivate desert areas. So it offered land for dirt cheap. Bundy says his family has owned the ranch since about the time the Desert Land Act passed.
A version of the law still exists today, allowing ranchers to graze their cattle on public lands for a nominal rate. The fee is cheaper than what the rancher would pay the state or a private land owner, but the tradeoff is that the rancher has to share the land with the public.
After the desert tortoise became a protected species in 1993, the Bureau of Land Management rebuked or phased out the permits of ranchers in the designated area in southern Nevada.
Bundy is the last remaining rancher, refusing to leave and refusing to pay more than $1 million worth of fines. Bundy lost all efforts at appeal and litigation. In an effort to enforce the law, the BLM attempted to round up Bundy's cattle and was met with a clan of armed defenders, leading to the current stalemate between the government and Bundy.
The Nevada Democrat had already been on the attack against Bundy before his racial comments. Last week the state's senior senator blasted Bundy's supporters as "domestic terrorists," saying they were arming themselves with automatic weapons and positioning "snipers in strategic locations."
Let us all remember that the land on this Continent never belonged to the white person in the first place. It belonged to the Natives of this continent who were systematically slaughtered by the white man so the white man could steal the land of the Native Americans.
Just his own personal views. Not racist. He used the terms as they were used in the deep south a very long time ago. His metaphors are absolutely on target. He did not need to point to one race in particular as the hand-outs are being given to ALL who just don't have a job now. Pelosi's daughter did a video of Baltimore unemployed in line for their "hand out" and they were asked how they felt about not being employed. Most of them said they were glad to be unemployed as they got more in handouts than they did working. Pelosi pitched a fit when she saw the film. I think it may still be on YouTube. Things are getting out of hand folks. Not all subjects or issues are racist. It is the human element now. Take off the crayons and make them all equal which they are in the eyes of God.
this man is a disgrace. just shows what happens when you spend your life living in the dark and refusing to venture out into the light...
Bundy IS the Republican party. So is Phil Robertson. So is George Zimmerman. So is Vladimir Putin. So is Fred Phelps. All of these folks have been held up as examples by prominent conservatives in the recent past. We have become so irreversibly polarized that nobody is beyond being put on a pedastal if it fires up any section of this party.
This disgusting man is just that – disgusting! He has the GALL to denigrate others while he STEALS, because that's what he's doing!. Hateful racist Republican!
I heard the liberals have a new hero from Eurpope, you know their favorite people, who has a book out that spells out what we need to do. One of those is that we do away with rich people and those making over 500K a year by taxing 80% of their income. You cant make this stuff up! They just spew it out and expect us to take them seriously.
What do you expect from welfare GOP traitors such as himself? He is jsut voicing what the GOP and teaheads believe anyway.
While his terminology is indicative of his age. He spouts the truth. As a mixed race person I totally agree. We also have this problem with people with disabilities. The liberal wing wants everything special for them. They don't want people to
Try and have a life. They want them dependent. It makes them feel powerful.
Bundy is a racist. He does not pay for grazing his cattle on public lands and gets away with it. He is a criminal. Why not arrest and jail him until he pays what he owes. If I did not pay my taxes, I would face fines or jail. He would probably love to have his workers call him "master".
Why is it anyone or anything that stands up to Obama will eventually have the race card used against them. . . . Sad. Not the best choice of words I will grant you but he was not using the word in a derogatory way as far as I can tell reading this article. A bit out of date to refer to them that way but he seems a bit out of date I guess. . . does not change the fact the Fed tried to illegally take his land over a turtle. . .
Not only is he a trespasser but he's ultimately a Welfare Rancher. Period.
Republicans are suicidal. To have any hope of winning a Presidential election in the 21st century they need to embrace diversity. Instead they rush to support a nut case one day and run away from him the next day when he says something stupid. By that time it's too late, all people remember is the support they gave him in the first place. Keep at it. Don't be surprised if you become an irrelevant group in 10 years.
For those who say the federal government overreacted. The guy threatened to use weapons against anyone who came to take his herd. The guy refused to pay taxes and grazing fees for 20 years. He loss 4 court battles. He was in the wrong for 20 years. The government for 20 years tried to resolve this peacefully, If that's not restraint I don't know what is. Then the militia made it worse. They brought more guns into the situation. So the government had to protect its people and brought more guns and armor. I am ignoring the fact about his racist comments. I am just speaking about legality here. Every farmer and rancher that uses federal land pays a fee for its use. This is common practice. This guy refused to pay. He was in the wrong.
i guess he is as racist as harry reid who once called obama "clean"
I think people have figured out that the best way to deflect accusation is to utter racist comments against African Americans. It seems to work so far.
For any of you who took the side of this guy in his fight with the Feds and didn't think he was a whacko, are you convinced now that he is? LOL
Well yeah I see the racism but he makes a good point. If you think of it are Black or African American or whichever you prefer really more free? I would say yes they are free from being put into forced labor against their will, the abuse, torture and other horrible treatment that was a result of being in slavery. However, they have become slaves to welfare and a societal decay that has in many cases prevented them from rising above the poverty and crime that they currently reside in. Or a failed education system that doesn't provide them with the tools they need etc.
The feds need to go in ala the Whiskey Rebellion and Washington and put them down hard. Listening to them talk about putting women and children out front of the militia smacks of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
A gun nut, lunatic, right winger who hates America because it not what HE wants says something racist?
Say it ain't so.
Bundy, Sharpton.....Both ignorant!
He said what many of us on the right think and whisper among ourselves when in polite company.
I was for bundy and his cattle farming before i was against him . Just as i had hopes that 0bama would bring america together before i was against him . They both get a big fat ( F )
One would think only white people are racists and that all Rednecks are Republicans...LOL
I'm not defending Bundy or his remarks. I had a father-in-law who was 87 when he passed away. He was a good and gentle man. People of his age and experience sometimes say things that are innocent enough on the surface, but taken apart by some media type or reactionary, could be construed as racist. His grandchildren would give him the raspberries over the comment and he would simply say "that's what I saw, that's what was happening." Older folks just have a way of being honest in a blunt sort of way sometimes without meaning anything by it. Bundy should have had the good sense to keep quiet.
Unfortunately most of what he said is the truth!