In the early years of his political career, Rick Perry began hosting fellow lawmakers, friends and supporters at his family's secluded West Texas hunting camp, a place known by the name painted in block letters across a large, flat rock standing upright at its gated entrance.
"Niggerhead," it read.
In all seriousness, I think this says very little about Rick Perry, and a lot more about the country he seeks to govern. A few choice quotes:
Mae Lou Yeldell, who is black and has lived in Haskell County for 70 years, recalled a gas station refusing to sell her father fuel when he drove the family through Throckmorton in the 1950s.
She said it was not uncommon in the 1950s and '60s for whites to greet blacks with, "Morning, nigger!"
"I heard that so much it's like a broken record," said Yeldell, who had never heard of the hunting spot by the river.
Racial attitudes here have shifted slowly.
Haskell County began observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day two years ago, according to a county commissioner. And many older white residents understand the civil rights movement as a struggle that addressed problems elsewhere.
"It wasn't the same issues here you were dealing with," said Don Ballard, the superintendent of the Paint Creek school district. "Certainly were no picketing signs. Blacks were perfectly satisfied with what was happening...
It's just a name," said Haskell County Judge David Davis, sitting in his courtroom and looking at a window. "Like those are vertical blinds. It's just what it was called. There was no significance other than as a hunting deal..."
The cowboys, when they were gathering cattle, they'd say they're going to the Matthews or Niggerhead or the Nail" pastures, said Bill Reed, a distributor for Coors beer in nearby Abilene who used to lease a hunting parcel adjacent to the Perrys'. "Those were all names. Nobody thought anything about it..."
You know, Texas is a little different -- you go where it's comfortable," Reed said. ". . . It would have been one thing if they had named it, but they didn't. So, it's basically a figure of speech as far as most people are concerned. No one thought anything about it."
In an interview with The New York Times on Sunday, Wallar Overton, the son of Mr. Perry's scoutmaster in his home county of Haskell, said the hunting camp had always been known by that name.
"It's just what it was called from Day One," Mr. Overton said. "I personally am not offended by the name, and I don't like the word."
"That's just what people call it," he said.
Surely there are people, in both stories, who find the name offensive. But what we see on display in the quotes is the insidiousness of racism, the way it gets in the blood, and literally alters the senses. A black woman in the county claims she was constantly addressed as "Nigger." A white man, in the very same county, claims that "Blacks were perfectly satisfied."
Several people in the story have no notion of why the name "Niggerhead" would be offensive. It's just what it is. I'm sure the people quoted recognize racism, on some level -- like say an outright lynching -- but if calling a hunting-ground "Niggerhead" isn't offensive to them, I think it's safe to say that white racism doesn't really exist as an actual force in their minds.
For the past few years, a lot of progressives have been banging their heads against the wall as racism has been defined as, say, the work of the NAACP. Matt Yglesias satirically makes the point
I've learned in long years of experience blogging about American politics that there are no racists in the United States. Certainly if there are any, they're not white people. And certainly if there are any racist white people, they're not conservatives.
Of course this has long been true. A deceitful inversion, where you accuse other of carrying the virus which seeps from your very pores, has long been the tactic of actual racists. What connects George Wallace and Jefferson Davis isn't just their racism, but their claim to be fighting for freedom. It's no different today. Shirley Sherrod was just last year.
When people ask why we can't have a "conversation on race," or wonder why Barack Obama generally avoids any discussion of white racism, they really should remember the country he governs. Whatever my critique
of Obama's rhetoric to black audience, the dilemma seems fairly clear to me.
We can talk about Skip Gates wrongful arrest. Or we can pass health-care. We can not do both.