Monday, December 20, 2010

If Republicans don't want to be tagged as racist, they shouldn't praise racist stuff

I know a number of conservatives and Republicans who get -- I think -- genuinely angry when Republicans and conservatives get smeared as racists. They tend to chalk it up as "race hustling" -- as though anybody who still complains about racism and its ongoing pernicious effects in our society is another Al Sharpton trying to make fresh hay over yesterday's grievances.

There's possibly an element of truth to that, on occasion. But if Republicans don't want to be tagged as racists, maybe a former RNC chairman, current Mississippi governor and possible presidential candidate like Haley Barbour shouldn't praise stuff that everybody knows was racist:

As Barbour recalls it in a new profile in The Weekly Standard, things weren't so bad in his hometown of Yazoo City, which took until 1970 to integrate its schools (though the final event itself is said to have gone on peacefully). For example, Barbour says that there was no problem of Ku Klux Klan activity in the town -- thanks to the Citizens Council movement, an organization that was founded on the basis of resistance to integration and the promotion of white supremacy.

"You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK," said Barbour. "Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you'd lose it. If you had a store, they'd see nobody shopped there. We didn't have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City."

The White Citizens Council movement was founded in Mississippi in 1954, shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated public schools, and was dedicated to political activities opposing civil rights -- notably boycotts of pro-civil rights individuals in Barbour's hometown, as opposed to Barbour's recollection of actions against the Klan. It was distinguished from the Klan by the public self-identification of its members, and its image of suits and ties as opposed to white robes and nooses.

Maybe there's an upside to Barbour's, er, whitewashing of history. Nobody wants to have been on the side of racists, so the racist aspects of their actions -- and their forebears' actions -- are recast into something more benign so that everybody gets to be on the side of history's winners. That reinforces our modern societal norm that racism is wrong. So that's good. 

But maybe it's also bad, because it's a lie, and everybody knows it. Mississippi didn't burn because white businessmen were running the KKK out of town during the 1950s and 1960s. The violence and anger that consumed the state came about because black people wanted civil rights and white people didn't want black people to have them. The white people who worked against those civil rights are the villain of the story, period. It doesn't matter that, perhaps, they were well-meaning community leaders who loved their families and were simply raised and indoctrinated in a different era -- because they were wrong, and in their wrongness show us how banal evil really can be. There's nothing complicated about this. 

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