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."
So if its true its not racist!!
Well that problem solved itself.
I wasn't really into starting a new American Revolution over his beef anyhow.
it is not the black man's fault ..it's the Government's fault
Someday, grandstanders will learn not to commit errors of eagerness.
Nobody should be surprised by this in any way.
As a liberal i can't say Cliven's statement is racist, his observations are not incorrect, his question has merit and it is not full of hateful expression. You could ask the same questions of the American Indian, now the white man is going the way of the buffalo.
Ah, CNN. Government propaganda at it's worst.
As a black man I can speak and say black people are off a lot better than even 30 years ago so yo say that if we were slaves it would be better off is just racist in nature and I don't see how anyone can defend that. I for one am college educated and upper middle class would and it didn't take slavery for me to do that. Secondly let's get rid of this notion that only black people live in ghetto's and receive government subsidy's. White people do as well in fact more than black people they also abuse it more as well. White people also stay in the ghetto it's just called the trailer park so would people say that they should be slaves to learn how to work also? Racism does exist in a lot of different ways but this guy is totally wrong.
His comments are revolting. I disagree that they apply to all conservatives though. What does seem to apply to most conservatives is a strong desire to embrace people with anti-government sentiment. There was never a valid reason to support this man. In not paying, he is stealing from the government. He was willing to take up arms to defend his theft of government property. The officials who backed down were wise enough to not allow his foolishness to result in harm to themselves or the people who joined in his criminal antics. For that, the government employees were called losers and this man was labeled a folk hero. Ridiculous.
CNN did not cover this story when the Feds went after the citizen with guns drawn. Now this guy says some disgusting comments and it's news. This is why CNN is a dying news organization
Ignorant! YES! Racist! Absolutly!..This country is ran by the top one percent which use race to divide us and get us to fight each other while they milk this country dry. Nobody cares about what happens to poor White, Spanish, Asians and Black citizens, except trick them into fight each other while they are carving the law of the land to help them. They call Obama a sociolist while this country has been a socialist country masking itself as a democratic one.. One day there will be war in this country and it will be the poor fighting the rich, not blacks against white or hispanic against black, but the poor against the greedy rich.
it was obvious these militia anti-government people are always racist.
I reckon Bundy is kind of living off the government as well. grazing his cattle on federal land without paying the fees everyone else does. Just saying....
Im black and in all honesty, the question does seem fair...
This guy clearly doesn't know a simple fact: there are more white people on welfare and most people who are on welfare do work. What a piece of work this guy is and not in a good way. Ignorant to the core.
the truth but a liberal and politicians have to oppose
What he said is not racism. It is the truth about many people who live on Government support.
This guy is clearly not well educated.
This guy should have never been in the news. CNN raised his stature by putting him as someone fighting the government and then put him again on the news for his bigoted statement. CNN gave him the platform for his voice. Otherwise, only his cows have to listen to him.
Anyone remember when Bill Cosby went off on black people and was applauded for it? Except by blacks?
Oh, and he belongs in prison for threatening the lives of officials of the United States of America, and inciting imminent lawless action from the thugs criminals who aided and abetted his criminal activity. And all the armed hoodlums who were pointing weapons at federal officials are also due for indictment on separate charges, in addition to obstruction of justice, interfering with the actions of law enforcement, and aiding in the commission of a federal offenses.
He's right. Are blacks as a whole better off? Yes obviously but
Thanks a lot, liberal media. A conservative can't even wonder aloud whether the black folk would be better off as slaves, without everyone jumping down his neck anymore. See what america is coming to, cnn?
HaHa HaHa HaHa....Look at all those TPers and Other Repubs running' for the hills now! That's called "just desserts" for jumping on the wagon in the name of politics before they new his "true colors". And as the aricle pointed out, the man is a hypocrite besides. Glad to see this joke of a political party still is best an one thing...making total fools of themselves. Gentlemen, I raise my glass to you. Keep up the good work.
Dear Cliven Bundy – The Confederacy called...they want their ideology back.