The Real Duck Dynasty Scandal: Phil Robertson's Comments on Race

His comments about gays are offensive, but his vision of the Jim Crow South is shocking—and his conservative defenders and liberal assailants are mostly ignoring it.
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Phil Robertson, the star of Duck Dynasty and a self-described “Bible thumper,” has been forced to fly the coop after making disparaging remarks about gays.

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” Robertson said in an interview with GQ. He went on to add that he thinks being gay is illogical because, well, “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus.”

Cue the outrage by gay advocacy groups. Cue the announcement of an indefinite suspension by A&E, the network that produces Duck Dynasty. Cue conservative charges of anti-Christian intolerance. So predictable.

But Robertson’s comments aren’t all that shocking. A broad swath of Americans—about 45 percent, according to Pew Research—agree with Robertson that homosexual behavior is “sin,” though they might not have expressed their beliefs in such a brash way. This is especially true of religious Americans, including a large number of Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and Muslims.

The presumably informed readers of GQ must be aware that such beliefs exist, and it’s hard to believe they are “shocked” when an outspoken conservative Christian like Phil Robertson espouses them. His comments may be ignorant, offensive, or ineloquent. But they are not all that shocking.

What is shocking are Robertson’s comments about race in the same interview. Buried under the firestorm of media and public outrage over Robertson’s comments on sexuality is his stunning insinuation that blacks were quite happy in the Jim Crow South:

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.

Now here is something that’s truly surprising. His recollection is oddly reminiscent of the Song of the South vision of the past, long since abandoned by even fringe historians. I’m reminded of a talk titled “The danger of a single story” that Chimamanda Adichie gave at TEDx in Oxford, England. There is never only a single story about a place or a people that tells the whole truth, she argues. The truth emerges upon hearing many stories, and one story taken alone is at least a partial falsehood.

Contrary to Robertson’s assumption, his single experience in Louisiana—however true it may be—doesn't tell us anything about the realities of the Jim Crow South. For that, we (and he) need to hear many stories. And not just stories of statutes and signs that specified “whites only” or overlooked public beatings or slogans that reiterated black inferiority or the crushing poverty inflicted upon an entire race that was almost as bad as death at the hand of a lynch mob. We also need to hear the stories that comprise what Howard Thurman called the “anatomy of segregation” in his famous 1965 book The Luminous Darkness.

We need to hear the story of Mary Turner, an African-American woman who was hanged in 1918 in Valdosta, Georgia, alongside her husband, and of Dorothy Malcolm, a seven-month-pregnant black woman murdered alongside three others by a lynch mob in Monroe, Georgia*. No one was charged in either case, since blacks had no legal recourse at the time.

We need to hear of Dr. J.L. Cockrell, an African-American dentist in Houston who was castrated by KKK members on March 3, 1921 for rumors of associating with white women.

We can’t afford not to hear of Ferdie Walker, who as a child in 1930s Fort Worth, Texas, was harassed by white policemen while waiting for the bus to arrive. They’d often expose themselves to her while she stood helpless.

We need to hear of Bobby Hall, a black man who was beaten and shot twice in the head in the 1940s by the sheriff of Baker County, Georgia.

When we hear many stories—stories like these and the thousands more like them—we see just how shocking Robertson’s assumption based on his single story really is. He may envision a Jim Crow South where blacks were treated well and sang happy spirituals all the day long, but this is not the South many African-Americans knew in this era.

They experienced a world like that of Charles Gratton of Birmingham, Alabama, who talked of the segregated South as a place where “you just automatically grow up inferior and you had the feeling that white people were better than you.”

In the rush to support Robertson for his beliefs about sexuality and sin, most conservative Christians seem to be ignoring this comment. Maybe they were too quickly swept up in the culture-war angle that dovetails with the community’s martyr complex. Or perhaps talking about the atrocities of the Jim Crow South reminds them that it was their theological forbears who perpetuated such injustices.

But what is the media’s excuse? Perhaps a civil-rights story doesn’t generate as many clicks as conversations about homosexuality. Regardless, it’s the story that is being overlooked in the Robertson ruckus, and it's the one we can’t afford to miss.


* Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Dorothy Malcolm was killed in Macon, Georgia. We regret the error.
 
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