A short history lesson of racism in Louisiana for those who may be confused

It seems like the internet has been just one big argument about Duck Dynasty for the last few days. I’m tired of it, I’m sure you’re tired of it, and I’m looking forward to the days when the collective Christian outrage can focus on something a little more outrageous than a billionaire getting ousted from a reality show.

I haven’t been surprised about the pushback to my post. But I have been a bit surprised at how many people have defended Phil Robertson’s comments about race:

“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. We're going across the field.... 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.”

I interpret these comments to be a white-washing of pre-civil rights era as a happy time for black people, and also interpret the second portion as suggestive that black people were less entitled in the time before they had full rights. I think his comments are horribly insensitive towards black people (and American history.) And yet, many people have responded with comments about how Phil was just sharing his own experience. As if Phil grew up with no context of race relations. And I get that for people his age, it’s common to have a revisionist view of American history. It’s awkward and painful, and much easier to paint those times as pleasant for everyone involved. But this kind of denial is also a form of racism. So when people are suggesting that Phil’s comments were racist, I think that is accurate. Denying racism, pretending that black people were happy during segregation, and then suggesting they were actually more pleasant back then? Yeah. Racist.

But let’s look at context.

racism in louisiana

Phil Robertson was born in 1946. When he was a child, buses were segregated, with black people having to sit in the back. This did not change until he was 12.  There were separate water fountains, separate entrances, and many public places that didn't allow entry to black people until he was a teenager. Until 1964, WHEN HE WAS 18, black children could not go to school with white children, and full integration did not occur until the mid-70's in Louisiana, with much public resistance. Here is a video of a science teacher and school principal (one white, one black) talking about their experiences growing up in this era:

Despite protestations that Phil Robertson’s opinions are the words of an uneducated man, he attended college at Louisiana Tech. I have no doubt that his life experiences have put him in situations where he observed blatant mistreatment of black people in the 1950’s and 1960’s in Louisiana. Again, I don’t think it’s uncommon, nor do I think he intended to be racist. But as we grapple as a nation to move forward with racial reconciliation, we cannot continue to pretend that slavery or Jim Crow were not that big a deal because the mythical happy black person overcame by singing songs.  These were horrible times for black people, and to suggest otherwise is incredibly tone-deaf.

Now, I know that Phil is not a perfect person, and that his views and statements on race reflect what a whole lot of folks of his generation might say on the matter. But that doesn’t give him a pass. I’m not calling for a witch hunt, but I’m am suggesting that we stop defending people who defend racism, because it makes us complicit, too.

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