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."
My problem with his comments isn't as much about race as it is about him saying it while HE suckles off the government teat on a far grander scale than some inner city mom.
I think that it is ridiculous how many conservatives defended this guy from the start, and I think his arguments have little merit. However, trying to attack these politicians/pundits based on Bundy's other beliefs is silly. It is entirely possible to support Bundy's case against the government while disagreeing with his views on race. What do the two have to do with each other?
The argument seems to be that if you agree with a person on one issue, you are automatically agreeing with him on every issue. This is nonsense. This mindset is a sad reflection of our partisan culture, where everyone is divided into teams, and you are either with someone or against them. Intelligent people can be both, agreeing with someone on some issues and not others.
Guess many of these "patriots" haven't heard of the Whiskey rebellion.
If you don't agree or are too lazy to debate the point call em racist.
I have to say that this is an example of people needing to keep their thoughts to themselves. I guess he never met Colin Powell, AG Holden, NASA Chief Bolden or a number of other members of the Black community that have done well by working hard. If he can't pay his dues to the government for what he has taken, then what kind of example is he? He is being leech like the other people he stereotyped.
Better to leave people wonder if you are the fool than open your mouth and confirm that you are.
Bundy cheated the taxpayers, you and me folks, out of grazing fees and then makes racist remarks. Sounds like a rwnj to me.
"...are (we) better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things..."?
You might want to ask yourself this question next time you go to the polls, particularly if you are poor or a person of color, or both.
Bundy right about one thing, minorities are not well off on government subsidiaries. Just cause he used strong language does not mean he is a monster. it is good to know that at least he wants to see minorities lives improved, even if he believes that this is the way to do it.
Wait, this guy was racist all along? No way!!!!! I thought he was the most multicultural and inclusive person in the USA?
An intelligent person can realize his actions in regards to the government and his words against the blacks are two completely separate things. Just because you may disagree with one, doesn't mean he is wrong in everything. Only a complete partisan fool would try to take support for him in the fight against the government as endorsement of his views on blacks.
This is the problem with elections, plain and simple. Half-truths to the base to motivate, confuse and hopefully you do a better job than your opponent. If we voted any other way, neither of the two parties would be in power.
he owes a million dollars for use of federal land, and he's complaining about blacks getting hand outs?????
This guy's a Mormon, the group that believes they are God's one true church on earth. And yet he's clearly a racist, and believes he doesn't have to follow the law? What would god think of that? Utah and Nevada are filled with nuts just like him, I know, my family lives there. They cry about the Feds, but are the first in line for handouts. The hypocrisy is stunning. We're God's chosen, but we don't have to follow the law...? Next time their "representatives" come to your door remember that actions speak louder than words.
Lets also so "Boycott Georgia"!!!!!!! To Dangerous!!!!
I was hoping that Atlanta would be chosen to host the 2016 Dem convention, but after yesterday's unfortunate passage of the "carry anywhere you want to" law, not so much.
awesome.. bring back slavery...this is a called fro the GOP to bring back slavery and put the negros picking cotton again. what are GOP governors waiting for... I got a neighbor that need to come clean my house
What a surprise – the old white rancher who refuses to recognize the federal government is also a racist. I am shocked!
"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."
I seem to recall the Tax Enough Already party existing before 2009.
So sad for the GOP, their latest self-proclaimed anti-American hero, the deadbeat, "won't pay his way" rancher in Nevada has suddenly been discovered to be an uneducated racist too.
So, what does this say about the Right in America today?
OMG, he made a statement without prior approval of the PC police(flaming liberals, democrats,CNN,MSNBC,CBC,ABC, Huffington Post, etc..) we must now rent our garments, bare our chest, wail, and cry his condemnation with a loud voice. But we must do this only when we are in a public forum.
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.
100% AGREE!! Excellent. Raising kids is a full time job for two parents under the best of conditions. Trying to raise kids, or many kids, in the inner city without any fathers around, but plenty of gangs, violence and bad schools is a losing proposition many simply cannot overcome. But a lot of these problem originate with personal choice, or more accurately BAD personal choices.
Republican base is racist. They gotta start accepting the fact that everybody knows that.
"I dont see the big deal. He thinks African Americans are enslaved to the federal gov through the welfare state,"
Ya, he also thinks African Americans would be better off if they were slaves and picking cotton. Amazing how you failed to mention those little details in the story. I love how repugs are quick to label this guy a "patriot" in order to score political points, and then scramble to distance themselves because they failed to find out who this guy real is. Another hero of the right bites the dust.
Ironic he complains about others on "government welfare" when he himself is also on "government walfare" in that he is feeding his livestock on government resources!
He has government subsidized livestock, and therefore government subsidizing income from them!
Just another tea party hypocrite!
Classic. Liberals making bigoted statements about conservatives based on bigoted statements about black people some rancher in Nevada made.
saying they were arming themselves with automatic weapons and positioning "snipers in strategic locations."
The government has been screwing the people much too long, and the tide is turning.
This country is going backwards and the people will take just so much and then they will do like people in other countries are doing. Harry Reid is the one who took the money for his state and used it to help the Casinos. The man is no good to begin with, As for Bundy, It wasn't the right thing to say but it was the truth. The government will do anything to win seats in Washington as anyone's expense.
Whats the big deal This is just how all Rethuglicans really think, have people not been paying attention to Faux news? All of them are either stupid or out right bigots, with their lies and innuendo. Its like you sell your soul when you start working at that hateful network, John Stossel was a respected journalist and now? Van Susteren was respected now her pretzel face just spews nonsense. Wake up America this is the GOP