This morning I watched the morning talking heads analyze and debate The Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen report Sunday that Rick Perry brought friends and supporters to a West Texas hunting camp his family leased that was called “Niggerhead.” I’m not interested in the political ramifications as that should be obvious. What I was observing was how people were making meaning of the situation from a racial perspective.
There were those who said that it obviously meant that Perry was racist. Of course the Perry camp said they rectified the situation in an expedient manner, offering up Perry’s record on race to dispel the developing “Perry is a racist” narrative. Others gave the “those were just the times” narrative and place the whole incident in the accident bin of history, not reflective of the present. One racial incident with many perspectives.
This and other types of similar situations offer us great insight into how race operates in the post-civil rights era. Dialogue around such incidents illuminate how in this era discussion concerning race and racism center around what is going on in people’s hearts, not necessarily the incident itself. In the post-civil rights era racial motivations are murky, sending people on an expedition to find the hidden racial meaning of commonplace incidents.
It is a significant paradigm shift to comprehend. For instance in my dad’s era if a black man was lynched for whistling at a white woman the focus was on the injustice of the action itself and there was nothing murky about the racial intentions. In today’s world most of the time the incident itself is sort of a bystander to the broader debate. Consider some relatively recent incidents (Prof. Henry Gates/Cambridge Police, Don Imus/Rutgers Women’s team, etc.). To some these are serious transgressions. To others they are trivial. The only people who would have such a debate over a lynching would be maybe Neo-Nazi’s.
The framework of the broader debate centers around the question “does the incident at hand reveal racial authenticity within a person’s heart?” That is what the talking heads were debating, not the incident itself. Nobody disputes that it took place or that it was wrong. I welcome these moments because in my opinion it furthers the conversation about race in America today.