Why Do African-Americans Forgive So Easily? (UPDATED)

Last week, while on stage with Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, at the Atlantic-sponsored Washington Ideas Forum, I kept thinking this one thought: Black people are very forgiving people. Over and over again, this notion came to mind as I listened to Barbour spin himself away from a simple question I was asking, a question prompted by the recent work of the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson: Does the Republican Party actually believe that African-Americans would support it in numbers so long as party officials -- like Barbour -- venerate the Confederacy?

Obviously, black people aren't so forgiving as to actually vote for Republicans in any significant way, but they are pretty forgiving nonetheless, when you consider the way southern Republicans talk about the antebellum South. Barbour has been neck-deep in this issue for some time. Earlier this year, a controversy erupted over the commemoration of "Confederate History Month" by Barbour's fellow Republican, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell, in his proclamation, did not even mention that small detail of life in the old South known as slavery, and Barbour was asked on CNN if McDonnell was right to leave slavery unmentioned. Barbour said there was no need to mention slavery because everybody knows slavery was a bad thing, and he accused McDonnell's critics of making "a big deal out of something that doesn't amount to diddly."

I asked Barbour if he thought the Republicans could have it both ways -- black support and worship of the Confederacy -- at the same time. This is what he said, in full:

What I was asked, in a TV interview, was, "Did I think it would hurt McDonnell?" That's the way I took the question. What would the effect be on McDonnell? I said I didn't think there'd be any. And I don't. And I think today there hasn't been, and I don't think there will be. I don't think there's any political effect. In my state, having a Confederate Memorial Day is statutory. It was there long before Haley Barbour was governor. It was statutory. But what I am doing with the only black congressman from the state is, we're having the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders in May. And we're inviting all the living Freedom Riders that we can find - and we've found 170 of 'em, or something like that - and John Lewis is being an honorary chairman of it. And we're going to bring them to Jackson, Mississippi and let 'em see how Mississippi's changed in the 50 years since they came down there. And very interestingly, the place - they asked this on the questionnaire - and the place they asked to go the most was the state penitentiary. That didn't enter my mind, and then I realized, 'cause they all got sent there. You know, these were kids, and they came in, didn't do anything wrong, but they took 'em to the penitentiary. And what I think they're going to kind of get a kick out of, virtually none of the buildings are there anymore, where they were. They've all been torn down and rebuilt as we've had to, like everybody else, had to improve our corrections system. But we're also going to have 'em at the governor's mansion, for while they're there.

We think that is a very important holiday to celebrate. We think it's a very important time. I have proposed we build a Civil Rights Museum in Mississippi, which the legislature's working on right now, because, you know, those are very important times for people to understand, as we go forward. And I think Santayana was right: if you don't read and understand history, you're doomed to repeat it. And we're putting our past behind us, and we're very focused on future.

Endless noise, signifying nothing. So I tried again: "Let me come back to this question - this political question about African Americans. That's fine - celebrating the Freedom Riders is fine - but do you think it's possible to make huge inroads, or significant inroads in the African American population, so long as many southern states and their Republican-led governments are celebrating something called Confederate History Month? And venerating the flag?

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In