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."
Too bad his comments were taken well out of context from an over hour long clip.
This is the radical side of the GOP. They need these votes from these bigots. They hate the president because of his skin color not his policies. Many in the GOP are not this vocal about their bigotry, but are just as bigoted.
Send in the gestapo to attack a man for taxes or turtles? Oh the story is not even clear about Harry Reids Chinese ENN solar panels.
OMG – he has a non-PC opinion!!!! Send him to the reeducation camp, quickly, before he contaminates others with his views on reality!! Oh, the horror of an American without a Proper View!
All gop folks and tea party folks....he broke the law, owes us tax payers a million dollars and he is a racist. He is supported by the gop and Fox news......enough said.
Vote them out in 2014.....do not wait until 2016!
Gotta hand it to those big, brave "militiamen" ; when the shooting starts, hide behind the women and children.
....And just like that, the posse scatters. All those GOP folk heroes now run to destroy any evidence of supporting this nutjob. Gentlemen: If you lie with dogs, you get fleas. Deal with it.
Well well very few Black people were brought here from Africa the majority is Inddenous to this whole Hemiphere and been living here for hundred of thousand of years on this land before stolen from them Bless.
Oh how the CNN fascist network works. Someone says something politically incorrect and the Fascist media lapdogs are all to eager to use this to clobber anyone who doesn't bow to the Nazi tyrrany so since most Americans always act like sheep our autocratic leadership can get away with pulling another Waco or Ruby Ridge. The Government is king of racism and warmongering. The media helps as best as it can to divide the races. Good job CNN your all the running dogs of Washington
His owing the government one million dollars turns into blacks are better off as slaves. Just how did blacks get into this. Are blacks being used to somehow rationalize his not paying the one million he owes the government for letting his cattle graze on public land.
While dated in his opinion of ghetto dwellers, and insensitive in his language due to his ignorance of today's terminology, he has a point only in his observation being accurate in terms of the ghetto people hanging around with nothing to do. No parenting. No fathers. Expecting handouts and harboring resentment and anger toward those who chose to make something better of themselves, namely the Dr. Benjamin Carson.
To generalize an entire group of people because of few Bad Apples, this is just plain wrong...Every group has a worthless bunch of individuals within that group..Some of the mindless stupid comments are coming from idiots that dont know any better. I grew up in a diverse neighborhood in the south and let me tell you lazy people came from all racial groups. Vee...go and get a clue...Better yet educate yourself...
Jumping on the Bundy bandwagon ONLY as a way to dis Obama turned up disastrously. Bundy is a criminal and NO amount of propaganda will hide that fact from reasonable people. There is no way to counter his racist rhetoric so they abandon him. WHY? You've already defined yourself as racists, just keep going after the black president as usual.
this story is clearly a CNN ploy to divide the public on the larger issue at hand, which is government power crushing citizen power once again. Is he racist? absolutely. But by constantly referencing how the "Fox News, Sean Hannity, Republicans, etc" used to support him, they are playing on the public's partisan divides. And now what happens? All the same Republicans that used to like him, now come out condemning him. So now what. Now, citizens of BOTH political parties can hate him. Now, his character is totally denigrated to a level that the masses will never stand behind him, aka stand behind the issue behind him, the government's ever-growing totalitarian ways. Citizen's rights in the USA are a travesty.
this guy is stealing from all of us.if he's not proscecuted then what is the incentive for any of us to bay state and federal income taxes.personnally I appreciate paying taxes(at a fair rate) and having state and fed services available to me(military protection,food inspections ,tsa,school districts,libaries.......)
This guy has not paid for using public lands, that means he is stiffing all U.S. citizens that pay taxes, for years. Why must news organizations continue to put a mic in the face of this criminal? Hey there are a lot of people in prisons that tried to take stuff from people/businesses and I do not see you rushing to put a mic in front of them. That this guy is a racists is not a surprise nor is it news – he is an ignorant guy who steals from others so he can make money. Move on to a real story – unless you are going to give equal time to all other thieves that are in prison or awaiting trial.
There is a thing called free speech.
Get ready for a stampede! Of Republicans heading for the hills away from this guy!
Nothing like these comments coming from a cattle rancher who is subsidized by the government.
Bundy, the Welfare Rancher, feeding his cattle on "subsidized" grasses paid for by the U.S. taxpayer is different from the poor on subsidized food stamps, how exactly.
Perhaps, the Bundy brood was better off as the white trash cattle wranglers they were back in the 1800's, before old bigoted Bundy got on welfare to help with his herd feeding!
Ok, this crook have been fighting this since 1993 so this may have started under the first Bush and Clinton was left with it. Now the racist GOP what to blame Obama. What a joke people.
Honestly, who cares what a clearly uneducated and socially isolated old coot has to say. He's clearly no authority on anything having to do with race. What he saw was simply a snapshot of what you would see in any state or city in the US and you wouldn't see only African American. He's no patriot, just a cantankerous old man likely reminiscing about a period he wishes were still here.
Was Al Capone a racist? What a nice way to demonize someone. Blacks do accomplish abortions and have failed with some of their communities͵ being so violent.
Is it racist to say what you see?
I think that this is a man who knows what feeding at the public trough is all about. We, as a country have some vey good ranchers, and some very poor ones. If we turned our federal lands over to the states, the first time they got in a bind they would sale them. Their would go lands for the public access and recation. His racial coments just show what a fool he is. The BLM and the other Goverment agecies are not perfect and could be better but this is not the way to change the laws. I was suprised at all the groups that did show up ready to fire on the Stars and Stripes. Do that buddy and we will see what we can do to get you a fight.
Look at all the people falling for the deception.
Is the guy a racist? quite possibly.
But look at how fast his racist views have overshadowed the simple truth that the Govt overstepped its bounds.
Now they have this guy looking like a villain and people will overlook the fact that regardless of his racist views, he doesn't deserve to be treated like he is by the govt.
A swift kick in the rear maybe but lets not lose focus on the reason hes even in the news to begin with.