Over the weekend, a front-page article in The Washington Post revealed that Texas governor and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry’s family hunting lodge was formerly known by a racially charged epithet.
If he hadn't run for president, perhaps it wouldn't have been a headline in newspapers across the country, this week; but he did, and it is. The simple and ugly fact is this: Rick Perry's family hunting lodge in Throckmorton, Texas, was once known as "Niggerhead."
First things first: As I’ve listened to the coverage, since last Sunday, I’ve sensed most news organizations struggling with how to cover the story - dancing around the word "nigger," and instead using all sorts of tortured euphemisms. As a black person, I appreciate their efforts at sensitivity.
However, I refuse engage in the same softening of the story. It is important, in reporting on racial history and hostility, in this country, to say the word, with all of it’s demeaning and degrading connotations.
As the Washington Post piece carefully and correctly points out, “Niggerhead” is not just some childish phrase coined by Perry and his people. The name, and others like it (Nigger Rock, Niggerville, Nigger Creek, Nigger Point) has a long history that predates Perry and this particular piece of property. It is most often applied to geographic markers, like hills and rocks, in areas where African Americans are few.
As for the Perry property, the family now reportedly calls the hunting lodge and the land upon which it sits “North Camp Pasture. By some accounts, including the governor’s, the family has painted over the welcome rock that displayed the ugly epithet.
By other accounts, the rock has even been rolled over, to completely hide the offensive word. Some say that wasn't recently enough, however. These are details the Perry presidential campaign will seek to elucidate (or obfuscate, as the case may be) in the coming days and weeks.
The underlying question, however, is whether Rick Perry has been a responsible steward of fundamental racial decency in America. The story implicitly raises, therefore, larger questions. Reports about the Perry property just scratch the surface of an important dialogue about race and public policy we need to have in America. It is a conversation we started before Reconstruction, but have never completed.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln opened the dialogue, inviting black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass to the White House, on more than one occasion. The men corresponded, as well, throughout the war, and Douglass attended Lincoln’s second Inaugural address and party, the last occasion on which the two would speak. Their dialogue – and friendship -- ended abruptly with Lincoln’s assassination.
The discussion was reinvigorated during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, under the leadership of Dr. King, when whites and blacks joined together in the fight for equality. Dr. King and President Kennedy continued the dialogue, in another historic White House visit between the president and civil rights leaders in August 1963. Dreams again were shattered, however, the dialogue again silenced by assassins’ bullets.
President Johnson continued the conversation, pushing for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The fight for civil rights waged on, but the war in Vietnam ultimately distracted our leadership, even as the rank and file was called from the frontlines of the struggle, to fight in another war, overseas.
Since that time, our presidents have been largely silent on race politics and policy. Even President Obama has been curiously quiet on the subject, perhaps because of his skin color, not despite it. His address last week, before the Congressional Black Caucus raised as many questions as it answered.
Would, then, a president Perry, with a past linked to "Niggerhead," be the man to pick up the mantle of Lincoln and Kennedy, to move the dialogue forward, into the 21st Century? I think not. Perry's performance thus far, even before the current dust-up, certainly suggest otherwise. Specifically, his answers during the debates suggest not only a man struggling with how to live in a multiracial country, but also a man struggling with how govern in one.
In 2011, this is not just about black and white. Governor Perry has been criticized for his approach to the Dream Act, for example, which he supports. At the same time, he has been disparaged for his suggestion that the .U.S send troops into Mexico, which most analysts, on both sides of the aisle, think irresponsible. (To be fair, Perry is not the first politician to suggest sending troops south of the border; but it is certainly a radical position.)
Perry’s positions indicate that he is grappling with how to message to his Republican base and still exist politically in a diverse, multicultural society - one in which the GOP presumably continues to be interested in attracting a multiracial voter base. Any use of the word “nigger,” it seems, would fly in the face of the latter.
In light of this political reality, what should Governor Perry have done? Truth be told, the average person cannot make it to middle age without some secret in his closet, some detail in his past, of which he is not proud. As Obama adviser David Axelrod so smartly put it, “Campaigns are like an MRI for the soul—whoever you are, eventually people find out. Time will tell whether this comes to reflect him or not.” No one is asking Mr. Perry to be perfect. But no one is asking him to run for president either.
Which gets us to the question of judgment. Politicians are people; they will have occasional lapses of judgment. In the end, the voters will decide which lapses matter most: The extramarital affair, the college plagiarism, the tweeting pictures of oneself in one’s underwear, the free Yankee tickets, or racism.
The Washington Post stands by its story (the rock was not painted over until after the Perry family started leasing the property.) But the question of just when the rock was painted over may not matter very much, in the end. What matters more is the fact that Rick Perry, when he was a political force in Texas, commonly hosted friends, fellow lawmakers and other supporters at his property. This was a place that he displayed proudly. It suggests questionable judgment to take political supporters to a place that was once called "Niggerhead" and is still known as "Niggerhead," amongst locals.
It raises questions of power and access. At these “meet and greets” about the future of Texas politics, were people of color present? Did they feel comfortable at "Niggerhead?" Did they feel they could really participate, as fully integrated members of the political process? In the Washington Post piece one visitor is quoted as follows:
“I was just so taken aback that it was so blatant, so in your face...It was a big rock, big enough to write that whole thing out.”
I would have been have been taken aback, too.
One question everyone has been asking me, since the story surfaced, is whether this story is a death knell for Rick Perry with black voters? Honestly, I don't think Rick Perry was counting the black vote.
More interesting to me is the subtle way in which the story reflects on another GOP contender, Herman Cain. He happens to be black and has been recently quoted as saying, “[Many African Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view.”
Maybe so; but the Perry story raises the same old chicken and egg problem vis-a-vis black voters and American politics. If African Americans don't feel respected by a certain political party, then why should we join them?
A related question that arises from the Perry story is the Latino vote, which is much more in play for the GOP. The word “nigger” may not speak directly to most Latinos. Latino voters may be watching, however, to see how the GOP responds. How does the GOP want to represent itself to people of color?
When the story broke over the weekend, Herman Cain told Fox News on Sunday, "I think it shows a lack of sensitivity." Too many Republicans, however, are sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see how this goes down. Instead, we should be hearing a much stronger response from the party of Lincoln, especially from its leadership.
Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.