JONATHAN CHAIT DECEMBER 20, 2010
Andrew Ferguson's profile of Haley Barbour is attracting a lot of attention because Barbour's praise of the White Citizen's Councils of his native Yazoo, Mississippi, accepted by Ferguson at face value, turns out to be historically inaccurate. Aside from the significant flaw of glossing over Barbour's praise for a white supremacist organization, Ferguson's profile is not that bad. It does, however, reveal some persistent tics in conservative thinking about race, segregation and the South. One tic is the belief that after about 1965, any particularly racist character of the South essentially disappeared:
Republicans then, he says, were the party of youth and progress—“made up of Jaycees and Boy Scouts”—in contrast to the Democrats, sclerotic from a century of single-party dominance and burdened with the legacy of segregation. “I was Republican county chairman when I was 25,” he told me, “and I was the oldest Republican county chairman in the state.”
That is the conservative view -- after the civil rights movement, association with segregation became a burden, even in Mississippi. The reality is that segregationist politicians continued to thrive for years and years. Indeed, if segregation was a "burden" for the Democratic Party, then you'd expect it would have sagged immediately after the civil rights movement before slowly coming back as time went by. In fact, segregationist Democrats continued to do well in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. The party's fortunes declined as its association with segregation wore off -- just the opposite of the dynamic Ferguson describes.
A second, related tic is a kind of petulant anti-anti-racism:
What role Yazoo City’s segregationist past might play in Barbour’s presidential campaign is hard to say. It could become an issue, particularly for Washington political reporters who enjoy moralizing about race and public education while sending their own children to progressive schools like Sidwell Friends and St. Albans, where applicants of color are discreetly screened and their numbers carefully regulated.
Two things stand out about this passage. First, notice the way it deflects any substantive question about Barbour and race by quickly raising the issue only to immediately divert the reader's attention to loathed target, the elite Washington media. Should we care about Barbour's roots in a white supremacist political culture? Hey, look -- there's Tom Friedman! You hate Tom Friedman!
Next, this implied ad hominem attack on the Washington press corps doesn't even make sense. Of course, not all Barbour's race critics are political reporters, and not all political reporters have children in elite private schools. But even if we assume that all Barbour critics are political reporters with children at Sidwell Friends, exactly what is Ferguson alleging? His phrasing -- "where applicants of color are discreetly screened and their numbers carefully regulated" -- implies that those schools limit minorities. My understanding is that they aggressively try to boost minority enrollment.
Is Ferguson saying those schools actually discriminate against minorities, and thus reporters are hypocrites? Or is he saying they're biased because they attend schools that practice affirmative action? Or is he just expressing a resentment of liberalism that does not rise to the level of argument at all?
I don't know the answer. But I do think the fact that this kind of rhetoric is coming from Ferguson, one of the more erudite and independent-minded conservatives, hints as to why Barbour might (despite my bafflement) be a force in the GOP primary. His past is not racist enough to disqualify him, but it is murky enough to spur the liberal media to raise questions. And thus Barbour will be in the position of being the white conservative attacked by liberals for his alleged racism. Even the hypothetical possibility of racial question being raised is enough to make Ferguson defensively sneer at the elite liberal media. The actual reality of it will surely make Republicans rally to Barbour.