A&E certainly knows how to work both sides of the street with Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. When Robertson popped off with his by now well-known slurs against gays and blacks, A&E feigned righteous indignation and pulled the show. But, did it? A&E deluged legions of its viewers with endless hours of the show on Christmas. This was no accident. The network was virtually assured that it would score big ratings with a Christmas marathon of the show. This is the day when millions are off work and glued to their TVs. A&E dutifully milked it for all it was worth all the while insisting that Robertson remains suspended; some suspension. But this is more than a case of a network talking out of both sides of its broadcast mouth. It's much more than a network grabbing fast bucks off controversy. It's even more than millions of viewers rallying to an embattled popular TV series figure, and a show that they like.
The brutal truth is that Robertson speaks for the millions who have embraced him as their man on the proverbial white horse battling for free speech, against political correctness, and most importantly for an acceptable, no matter how crude, brand of bigotry, especially racial bigotry. Despite five years of the Obama administration this latent bigotry not only has not dissipated but has roared even fiercer in intensity. In fact, Robertson's timing couldn't have been better to make his blatantly racist crack if scripted from above. Polls show a huge racial and gender divide on Obama's current approval free fall. White males are the most hostile to him and his policies. But that just reflects a quiet sentiment on race that never went away.
Is it ignorance, confusion, racial denial, or closet bigotry? It's all of the above. There are several compelling hints that the racial blinders are tied chokingly tight on many whites, particularly young whites. Many of those that passionately defend Duck Dynasty say it's just entertainment and any sentiment anyone on the show expresses no matter how dumb and racist has nothing to do with their delight in the show. But racial digs that mock blacks and imply unbridled joy with their slave past can't be separated from the wave of fraternities that in recent times have been called on the carpet for mocking black notables and rappers, holding slave auctions, minstrel shows, displaying the Confederate flag in front of frat dorms, and for their members sporting the flag on tee shirts. This was not merely a free speech issue, or a case of zany college kids making utter fools of each other.
This was blatant racial slander, and should have been severely punished. But many students at the universities lambasted the criticism of the frats as political correctness gone awry.
Polls and surveys that focus exclusively on black and white racial attitudes have found that many whites repeatedly point the blame finger at others for being racists, not themselves. Then in the next breath, many of them said that too much ado is made of race, while blacks said the opposite.
In every race tinged controversy that's embroiled a media figure over the years from the Don Imus flap a few years back to now Duck Dynasty, it's always the same. The overwhelming majority of blacks will shout loudly for the offender's scalp. A majority of whites waffle and cavalierly dismiss their statements as a right to free speech, or insist that a hand slap suspension is more than enough, or in the case of Robertson, too much.
The tom, coon, and mammy images of blacks have been a linchpin of America's shameful racial past and by no means have they been tossed into the historical dustbin. The clue to why the old racial stereotypes defy extinction is to examine the way they were heaped on blacks in the past and how they continue to be subtly and not so subtly recycled today in the endless stories on black crime, gangs, and dysfunctional families. So when Robertson pithily says black were happy and content picking cotton, i.e. slavery that plays hard to the gate.
Over time the ancient racial stereotypes have been confirmed, validated and deepened until they have taken on a life of their own. This reinforces the belief of many whites that most blacks neatly fit the stereotypes.
So Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders can scream all day against Duck Dynasty as a blatant instance of "white privilege" rearing its ugly head. And they can demand to talk things over with A&E about Robertson's fate, it won't amount to much. The bottom line is this. Robertson is too deeply invested in two Golden Calves. One is a TV network's relentless grab for dollars, dollars, and more dollars. The other is he simply blurted out what millions think. That's why A&E never really canned him and why it and millions of others feverishly embrace him.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson