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."
And the smearing begins.
The feds cant beat this guy straight up so they resort to this BS.
Bundy just says what most Tea Party politicians think. But since he's just a habitual criminal and not a politician he doesn't know to keep his mouth shut. But his comments do remind me of 19th Century Western thinking. Wouldn't the U.S. just be better off with getting a rope and being done with this traitorous criminal.
The racist remarks, particularly the out of touch stereotyping with cotton picking, just say it all. The man is just saying what all older republicans believe.
Having known dozens of ranchers from Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, Montana and Utah, I could see this coming. There's a weird sense of entitlement concerning public lands that I just have never agreed with. At the same time, not a single one I've ever known had managed to make it into the twenty-first century. They are all rooted in nineteenth century ideals and mores.
It's never a good idea to use a nineteenth century, common, white man as your ideal citizen when attempting to appeal to a racially diverse population encompassing both genders.
I fail to see the problem. Racism? He only spoke the truth.
I don't understand why the RNC chairman would come out to criticize Bundy's statements. Don't Bundy's statements coincide with the GOP's sentiments exactly? Tell us one single point in his statements that does not!
What the liberals and leftists in here really hate is that what he said, while crude and unPC for this day and age, are quite accurate. So in order to delect from the accuracy of the statement, they try and portray an older white guy as racist when they have absolutely no proof of that. But facts and proof don't matter to the race baiting left.
Republicans have contradictory opinions on who a hero is. Did they think Timothy Mcveigh was a hero too? How about David Koresh or Warren Jeffries? I know the NRA thought Randy Weaver was a hero... And this gaffe definitely lends credence to the fact that not all Republicans are racists, but almost every racist is a Republican.
I love how the left wingers try to attach one man's comments to all people who supported him and his RIGHTS.
Oh, you mean like the right has done to people of the Muslim faith – including those who have been American citizens for generations – since 2001?
Defenders of this Thief and Traitor are traitors at heart, too. You are traitors to the United States of America. That's a fact. I don't care who your Grand Pappy was.
A bum who doesn't pay his rent and a racist. Who's surprised. And so far he has taken more than any welfare queen. Pay your bill, moron.
Amazing how the righties on here continue to excuse him. He has been what they abhor, a man who has leeched off of the rest of us, and they are defending him like he's the start of another revolution. He's not.
How do you claim that there is no Federal Government while at the same time use the Constitution of said non-existent government to justify your words and actions...and claim it doesn't exist while flying its flag? I agree with the BLM that it was wiser to avoid a shootout, but this clown belongs in jail, charged with theft that he's proud to claim.
Why don't the authorities just arrest this deadbeat, racist piece of detritus and throw him in jail until he pays his $1million in fines and gets his filthy animals off public land?
So let's get this striaght. The law and order right wing applauds this man for ripping off the government and taxpayers by not paying a nominal grazing fee. Then all the anti government militia boys show up with guns to defend him. The right wing, Republicans, Fox News and especially Sean Hannity make this man out to be a patriot for breaking the law. Until we realize he's an ignorant racist who hates the black man and won't recognize the Federal government.
Then you morons continue to defend him. Sheesh. Imagine if it had been a Black man who did not recognize the government, brought in his friend with guns to defend his urban housing project that he won't follow the rules about living there.
Can you guys spell hypocrite? Try T-E-A P-A-R-T-Y. or R-E-P-U-B-L-I-C-A-N or best yet F-O-X S-N-E-W-S.
So, everybody agrees that his remarks were racist. Now, what is the controversy?
The Justice Department needs to identify everyone of the terrorist,and arrest all on FEDERAL CHARGES!!!! Where is our law enforsement to protect citizens from this kind of armed "Terror"???? Come on Eric Holder,do your job?
I just don't see a problem with the truth he spoke, just how he said it. Look at all of these supposedly leaders of the black community. Look at the way Farrakhan talks about the white man and Jews, what's the difference? He says he is only speaking the truth.
“He was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama – a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,’ as he said privately.
"as he said PRIVATELY". In other words, he made the comment in private and someone leaked it to the media. Welfare queen rancher made his comments for ALL THE WORLD to hear, so yeah, apples to orangutauns.
OK, so closet racism from liberals is fine as long as you don't let people know you're really a racist. Thanks for clarifying that for all of us.
"I'm black. I'm not offended. Was the language he used straight out of 1950? Yes. Could it be *construed* as offensive or insensitive? Yes. But the *content*, if one would use their logic and reason instead of just being emotionally reactionary is frankly thought provoking, and in *part* perhaps even true.
There *is* something wrong in the inner city Black culture today, and it comes from *within* not from outside. Dependent on the government, directionless, fatherless, unmotivated. I agree that there seems to be in part a self-inflicted bondage to mediocrity, dependency, and moral erosion within our inner cities."
Just not believable. Any educated black person would know that the majority of people receiving social assistance are actually white (i.e., your adoption of the conservative belief equating social assistance with minorities is just plain WRONG), would not be using "inner city" as a whitewash-word for "black" and would not be adopting the same apologist, enabler excuses that are currently pouring out of the conservative propaganda machine about this bigot's flagrantly racist and reprehensible statements. "Oh, he's just old" and "He made a good point but said it poorly." No, he didn't make a good point and yes, he did reveal that he is a dyed-in-the-wool racist pig by even thinking such filth. You sound like Williamson from the National Review. Pathetic.
Lets also so "Boycott Georgia"!!!!!!! To Dangerous!!!!
So, he doesn't want to pay grazing fees which are lower that what he can get privately or through the state. Sounds like a welfare rancher to me. Appears he wants to live off the American tax payer.
You can always trust the bigoted Republicans to support racism and pretend everyone is as disgusting as they are.
Disgusting people like Silence DoGood, you are embarrassing. Your pretense that the left is as racist as you are is sickening.
But that's Republicans for you. Honorless and disgusting and pretending everyone else is just like them.
I am sickened by the comments supporting this racist old thief. But again. that's Republicans for you.
Oh, and to Bundy and all his supporters, white people get welfare too. Just thought you should know.
Seems like the Bundy family has been living on government assistance since they "bought" the land. Sadly, most white people I know think exactly like this man. Yet they don't know why people would think they may be racists and bigots.