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.

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.

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