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Glenn W. Smith

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Rick Perry, Racism and America's Soul

Posted: 10/04/2011 12:15 pm

If you plan to run for president, it's probably a good strategy to avoid leasing a hunting camp called "Niggerhead." Actually, anyone wanting to live a decent and moral life should consider following the same rule. Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems to be testing that proposition, however, as his campaign, his allies and even some opponents try to explain away the racially charged issue.

The Washington Post's revelation about Perry's hunting camp has, to say the least, stirred some national discussion. But what the talk has demonstrated so far is our general ineptitude when it comes to discussing matters of race.

The dominant folk theory about race in America tells us we are fast transcending racism. We have an African-American president, after all. We passed a Civil Rights Act long ago. Some of our best friends are [fill in the blank].

The folk theory is false, of course. Racism remains a troubling force in American political, social and economic life. Armed white vigilantes ride around in pick-ups hunting Mexicans near the U.S.-Mexico border. Studies show that in 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics live in poverty. Almost 10 percent of young black males are imprisoned.

Sadly, some misguided Republicans are engaged in a national effort to suppress the votes of racial minorities. Even a judiciary that approves of tough new Voter ID requirements concedes the point that the restrictions will disenfranchise voters. Dissenting in the federal appeals court ruling approving the Indiana voter ID. law, Judge Terrance D. Evans said, "Let's not beat around the bush: The Indiana voter photo ID law is a not-too-thinly-veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by certain folks believed to skew Democratic."

Throughout the country, the GOP is using the congressional and state house redistricting process to dilute the voting strength of minorities. Jose Garza, an attorney for Texas' Mexican American Legislative Caucus, names the GOP ploys "stacking, packing and cracking." Stacking places some minorities in more affluent white districts to minimize their impact on elections. Packing is a kind of political ghetto-izing. To insure more whites are elected, huge numbers of blacks and/or Hispanics are loaded into one district. Cracking is the name for dividing communities to dilute its influence.

Despite the evidence, many white liberals are uncomfortable talking about racism. In the wake of the Post story on Perry, some Democrats in Texas rushed to Perry's defense. But blanket pardons of Perry disguise the undeniably racial consequences of Perry's policies. When it comes to education, health care, economic opportunity and transportation, Texas minorities suffer disproportionately.

It was, after all, this same Rick Perry who complained about Hispanics filing lawsuits. "Every Jose in town wants to come along and sue you for something," Perry said.

We don't have to peer into Perry's soul. To see the consequences of racism, we simply have to open our eyes and see. My guess is that the people of color reading this piece are saying, "Duh. Tell us something new."

In the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and Richard Nixon's 1972 landslide victory, Democrats (especially Southern Democrats) wanted to escape the politically charged issue of race. They knew they would lose white voters to the Republicans. So they talked about everything but race. Their messages turned beige. A generation of activists wanting a paid role in politics did the same. Talk about racism was an election loser, so they didn't talk about it.

We're living with that legacy now. Yes, as a nation we are doing better on matters of race. But as new attacks on minority voting rights make clear, in many ways we are moving backwards.

Silence is the enemy of justice. And preening sophistication about how to win elections is the enemy of moral courage.

When Perry spoke of the possibility of Texas secession, he was sending a signal to the racists in his audience. Obviously, he thinks their numbers are large enough to deserve special attention. It's not Perry's soul I'm worried about. It's America's.

 

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