Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the ex-Guv says the playing field is level and that blacks can be racist, too.

Haley Barbour
Haley Barbour (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Former Gov. Haley Barbour took to the pages of USA Today share his thoughts on the current state of race relations in the South. He was invited as part of series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

The choice of Barbour, and his acceptance, are surprising for several reasons. First, as a key figure in Nixon and Reagan’s Southern Strategy, Barbour owes his political career to the disaffected Dixiecrat whites who joined the GOP after LBJ’s civil rights legislation. Second, the drawling DC insider from Yazoo seems far down the list of Mississippians who could provide insight on the March’s anniversary and its significance. He did claim to hear Dr. King speak once in 1962, but by his own admission, “We paid more attention to the girls than to King.” Finally, the Guv has never been an effective communicator about race. Intemperate remarks about the Citizens Councils get most of the blame for his presidential campaign’s failure to launch. Without any apparent electoral ambitions left, Barbour only risks further embarrassment by taking a national stage on the topic of race.

With that said, he offers a valuable — if not particularly empathetic or poignant — voice on race relations. Barbour’s comments are a litmus test for the prevailing racial attitudes of white Mississippians of his generation.

Barbour has, in certain ways, adapted to new laws and norms on race, even though he wasn’t thrilled about changes at the time. He repudiates de jure segregation and the violence that was carried out in its name. He praises the “demonstrators,” i.e. nonviolent activists, of the civil rights movement. He offers the belief that society has changed for the better since Jim Crow.

But, like many in his generation, Barbour rejects the need for further change. He assumes that racial justice and equality is fait accompli, and that calls for continued remediation are rooted in black entitlement or so-called “reverse racism.”

I’ve pulled out a few key excerpts that illustrate his views:

“While most of the change has occurred incrementally, it has been enormous. De jure segregation is outlawed, and equal opportunity exists in most cases. This does not always yield equal results, for that would require identical talent and equal effort, which would be extremely rare, whether between races or among any other groups.”

Even if we grant Barbour’s assumption that everyone receives equal opportunity (and that’s a claim that should never be granted), his argument logically concludes that outcomes differ because of inherent inequality in talent and work ethic “between races or among any other groups.” A man of Barbour’s political intelligence should know better than ascribing traits to races and groups. In this day in age, it’s rare to hear a political figure utter something so demonstrably racist without an immediate public walkback. Barbour has issued no such clarification, to my knowledge.

“After Medgar Evers was murdered 50 years ago, his killer, Byron De La Beckwith, was prosecuted by a young district attorney from Jackson, Bill Waller. When the first jury failed to reach a verdict, Waller tried Beckwith again. The second jury hung as well, and Beckwith was not convicted until the early 1990s.

Conventional wisdom held that Waller would be politically ostracized. Instead, Bill Waller was elected governor in 1971. His son, Bill Waller Jr., is currently chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.

During the same period, Laurel, Miss., prosecutor Charles Pickering testified in the 1966 criminal trial against Sam Bowers, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan in the state. Pickering was soon elected to the state Senate, became Mississippi Republican Party chairman and served as a federal judge.

If Mississippi had not already begun to change those 40 years ago, these elections would not have resulted as they did. While evolutionary overall, political changes began in my state much sooner than is often recognized, and positive changes in other areas of race relations have continued apace.”

Barbour devotes four paragraphs to the rise of racially-moderate white politicians, mentioning two of them (and one’s son) by name. By comparison, he only spends one paragraph in the entire article on the civil rights movement itself. Barbour saves that paragraph for the end and and mentions no individuals except himself and his wife Marsha.

“Political change in Mississippi and the South has been ubiquitous, and everyone is better off for it. Yet we must admit that that doesn’t mean there are no racial problems or no racism. To expect there will never be any racial discrimination in the South or anywhere else is unrealistic. And racial animus can cut both ways.”

This is the last paragraph of the article. Barbour states, “political change in Mississippi and the South has been ubiquitous,” as if it is self-evident. Mississippi has seen plenty of change, but our politics have been particularly consistent. In the 1964 presidential election, when only 6% of Mississippi’s black citizens could vote, the Magnolia State gave the Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater 88% of its votes. In 2008, Mississippi’s white voters gave 88% of their support to the Arizona Republican John McCain. Goldwater campaigned aggressively against civil rights; McCain ran against a black man with an African name. Goldwater won more of his votes from abject racism than McCain, but it’s hard to see the ubiquity of political change when Mississippi’s voting preferences are still polarized by race.

The article’s final sentence, “And racial animus can cut both ways,” is a fitting enough conclusion. In a piece full of subtle shots at blacks, Barbour decided to part with a direct one. Tacking on charges of “reverse racism” serves to absolve whites of the full burden of Mississippi’s racist history that Barbour spent the previous 561 words burying.

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