Barbour Walks it Back

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 21 2010 1:45 PM

Barbour Walks it Back

So it either wasn't a dog whistle, or it was a double-secret dog whistle that is now in full effect because the media made him do this :

When asked why my hometown in Mississippi did not suffer the same racial violence when I was a young man that accompanied other towns' integration efforts, I accurately said the community leadership wouldn't tolerate it and helped prevent violence there. My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the "Citizens Council," is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time.

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Let's step back for a minute. Barbour is not being accused of membership in any racist organization. He's not accused of doing anything that could be construed as racist in the Civil Rights era. So is it unfair that he's being forced to walk back a clumsy couple of sentences in a favorable profile, when his point was that he was glad that his city wasn't ever racist?

Well, no. The problem with what Barbour's been saying -- and we should expect him to tumble into another thorn bush like this in a few months -- is that he doesn't ever acknowledge that racism exists. His view of race is the one parodied by Stephen Colbert when he claims that he can't tell the difference between black and white people, because "he doesn't see color." It's fine for a private citizen to feel that way. And it wouldn't be fun to live in a country where everyone, at all times, is apologizing for possible biases and refusing to make decisions because of those possible biases.

But Barbour's a governor who might become president. A governor decides whether or not to pardon prisoners -- whether his state's justice system might occasionally get it wrong , and whether race might be a reason why. A president appoints hundreds of attorneys and judges who will determine, basically, what "racism" is. Will the Civil Rights Division of his DOJ make it harder to people who've been historically discriminated against to vote, because they believe racism evaporates if everyone agrees not to notice it?

I don't see much of a need to rake Barbour over the coals for saying clumsy things about race once in a while. The pattern revealed by his "gaffes," though, is of a politician who thinks racism isn't really a problem anymore, and that liberals get too much political leverage from the memory of the Civil Rights era.

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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