What do conservatives think about race in America? Phil Robertson, the new conservative hero, offered an argument about the history of race relations that is popular with conservatives: “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people.’ Not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say, ‘Were they happy?’ They were godly, they were happy, no one was singing the blues.”
Robertson justified this version of race relations in Louisiana before the civil rights era by saying, “I’m with the blacks.” But he wasn’t with any blacks in school, because all the public schools in Louisiana were segregated long after the 1954 Supreme Court decision about Topeka, Kansas. In November 1960, when the first blacks were admitted to school in New Orleans, whites in Caddo Parish, where he grew up, burned crosses at the all-black high school and at the Parish School Board Office. Robertson was 14 years old. The first blacks were admitted to public schools in Caddo Parish in 1965, after he had graduated. School officials there kept delaying integration through the 1970s. So of course, he had no black teammates at his high school, where he was all-state in football, baseball, and track.
Robertson met no black people at any sporting or social event, due to the 1956 state law banning “dancing, social functions, entertainments, athletic training, games, sports or contests and other such activities involving personal and social contacts in which the participants or contestants are members of the white and Negro races.”
When he went to Louisiana Tech in 1965, there were no black students. That year a federal judge ruled that Louisiana Tech finally had to admit African Americans. A photo of the football team where he played ahead of Terry Bradshaw shows no black players. Across the state at Louisiana State University, the segregation laws had made national news in 1956 when the University of Wisconsin’s football team had refused an LSU demand to leave their two black players home, and LSU then refused to play. LSU had no black players until 1971.
Louisiana had a long and violent history of racism. At least 27 African Americans were lynched in Caddo Parish alone between 1878 and 1923, more than one every other year. Perhaps the last black man lynched in Louisiana was R.C. Williams in 1938 in Ruston, home of Louisiana Tech.
Charles Blow of the NY Times said this about Robertson’s claims about race: “Only a man blind and naive to the suffering of others could have existed there and not recognized that there was a rampant culture of violence against blacks. Whether he personally saw mistreatment of them is irrelevant.”
Robertson’s casual dismissal of racism in the Deep South fits well with conservative Republican mythology. His Governor, Bobby Jindal, calls himself one of Robertson’s “loudest and earliest defenders”. He said, “I’m tired of the Left, I’m tired of those that say they are for tolerance, they’re for diversity, and they are, unless you happen to disagree with them. The Left wants to silence anyone who has a different view or a different perspective.” Earlier this month, Representative Mo Brooks from Alabama said, “What is the one race that can be discriminated against? … All whites.” That echoes conservative Pat Buchanan’s comment from a year ago.
Why are conservative Republican politicians blind to the history of American racism? Why do they make absurd claims about how good things were for blacks in the Jim Crow Era? One reason is the widespread self-pity among conservative whites. A study in 2011 showed that whites believed that anti-white discrimination was stronger than anti-black discrimination. White conservatives fear that diversity brings discrimination against them: in a recent poll, nearly two-thirds of white conservatives said that “discrimination against whites will increase due to rising diversity.” A majority of white conservatives believes that “high levels of racial and ethnic inequality are a natural outcome of the economy.” Thus they oppose “new steps to reduce racial and ethnic inequality in America through investments in areas like education, job training, and infrastructure improvement.” Observing the events in Ferguson, Missouri, 61% of Republicans believe race has been getting too much attention.
In April, Rand Paul told students at Howard University that “the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights and voting rights.” Reince Priebus lamented at the Republican Leadership Conference that the party of Lincoln doesn’t get enough credit: “We’re the party of freedom and we’re the party of opportunity and we’re the party of equality, we’re the ones with that history.” Yes, once upon a time the Republican Party was the party of freedom for African Americans. But as long as conservative Republicans celebrate deniers of our racial history like Phil Robertson, nobody will believe that.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 2, 2014