“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.”
Those are the well-reported words of Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Duck Dynasty empire. His remarks on gays and lesbians have garnered the most press, but his comments on race run a close second. And the more I’ve read them (they’ve kind of been unavoidable), the more I thought about my own upbringing in the South. Robertson grew up in Louisiana in the 60s, and I’m a child of 70s Tennessee, but I bet our experiences are similar.
And in this case, my experience was identical: I never saw any of those things, either. And why would I? My school might not have been segregated, but my society certainly was. The moment those school bells rang, black and white kids went their separate ways, meeting only on the bus to take us to basketball games. We didn’t fight, but we also didn’t socialize, mingle, or hang out together.
But unlike Phil, I still knew that that kind of separation was wrong. And when I saw African Americans expressing their anger about it on the news, I understood it. And agreed with it.
Why? Beats me, really. My parents and extended family were prejudiced in that insidiously “benign” way that claims they wish no harm on other races, they just don’t want them around. That let them feel that they had the moral high ground over “real” racists who wanted to beat and kill any African Americans who got “uppity.” It also let them continue to claim to be good Christians. So I’ve seen the kind of society these beliefs create: I grew up in it, and whenever I go back home, I realize it still exists. It’s dying, to be sure, but as this whole Duck Dynasty controversy shows, it’s not going quietly into that good night. There are still plenty of people who want it back, and who think it’s the way things ought to be.
Which brings me back to Robertson’s statement. Did he really not see these things? Probably not. Why would he? He might have been “white trash,” as he says, but that’s still white. In that world, that degree of separation was enough.
But did he know about them? Of course he did. We all did. Which makes him at best a revisionist, at worst a hypocrite.
And what does that make those who support him so vehemently? Because here’s the truth: they know, too.
Jonathan Merritt at the Atlantic Monthly explains this in a more scholarly way.