The free-range libertarian message from a famously defiant Nevada rancher took a detour this week when he wondered aloud whether blacks might have fared better under continued slavery.
Cliven Bundy, the cattleman who rallied protesters and armed militia members into a victorious April 12 standoff with federal officers, was recorded on video lamenting the effects of welfare on blacks in North Las Vegas. On Thursday, he held a news conference in which he insisted he is not racist but again wondered whether blacks were better off as slaves.
"They seem to be slaves to the welfare system," he said.
The issue arose after the New York Times on Wednesday reported Bundy's comments about "the Negro's" dependency on government.
"They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton," Bundy said. "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." A video of his comments was posted on YouTube.
Bundy gained national attention for standing up to the Bureau of Land Management when agents began rounding up his cattle as punishment for 20 years of refusing to pay fees for grazing on federal land. Armed agents backed away and released hundreds of cattle when confronted by hundreds of protesters and armed militia members who converged on southern Nevada.
Bundy has argued that the Constitution does not permit the United States to own public land like that he uses. Most legal scholars dispute his stance.
Bundy also dismisses federal authority more generally and says ultimate authority rests with the local sheriff.
The racial comments did not surprise the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based anti-bigotry group that tracks militia activity. And right-wing angst has translated into anti-government militia growth every time a Democratic president has been in office since the Carter administration, said Heidi Beirich, director of the center's Intelligence Project.
"There is so much anger on the far right," she said. "This incident (in Nevada) is a classic flare-up of that rage."
Some Republicans who supported Bundy's standoff with the government are now distancing themselves from his controversial statements.
"His remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him," said GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, in a statement released Thursday.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said in a statement that he "completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy's appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way."
Several Arizona Republican politicians traveled to Bundy's ranch to support his cause during and after the standoff. U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. was among them.
Gosar did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Previously he said he visited Bundy because he wanted to learn why the government was showing force against an individual. He said Bundy's armed supporters did not unnerve him.
"I'm worried more about the paramilitary aspect of our BLM," he said.
(Contributing: Arizona Republic reporter Rebekah L. Sanders, Cat Camia, USA TODAY.)