There’s this funny thing about being a white person from the South: history matters. In buildings, in words, in names. The past matters because it is the tool by which (a hypothetical) you will define yourself as someone “better.” You are not one of “those people” – who wear hoods, who say the “n word” with violence, who lynched black men and women because they could.
Even as you argue that the black population wouldn’t make up the lion’s share of those seeking abortions “if only they’d stop having children” (as if they were automatons, unable to stop themselves from procreating), at least you’re not one of those people.
(The woman making that argument, by the way? Catholic.)
Because you are not one of “those people,” you are exempt from responsibility for your casual racism, your historical amnesia. Because we all know that there is no Truth in history, right? The Civil War becomes given a different perspective the War of Northern Aggression or That Recent Unpleasantness. So, in Barbour’s case, his recollection of history is completely logical from his perspective. As Elon James points out in a great This Week in Blackness on Barbour’s race-related comments, Barbour’s memory isn’t faulty. To be a Straight White Middle-Class Dude in the 60s South was awesome if you wanted to be legally invincible. From Barbour’s perspective, the Citizens Councils were upstanding community organizations, not segregationist heel-draggers.
From Barbour’s perspective, he is not one of “those people.” He is of a new generation, who did not vow to support “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” (to reference a bit of my old home’s past). Instead, he is, as Ron Perlstein argues in the above link, a “middle-aged Southern conservative” whose job “is…to opportunistically ‘forget.’”
History is useful as a background to define oneself against because it’s just too big to encompass every experience. KKK members, lynchers, white mobs seen through the magic lens of a certain kind of white Southern mind become largely faceless, led by a few notable voices. They are a seething mass, undefinable. You, however? You are an individual, that holy grail of the American psyche! You resisted such racism when you saw it, and clearly deserve a cookie. Who cares if you’ve altered history a bit, or forgotten parts of it entirely?
See: The Entire Plot of Forrest Gump.
The problem with this little charade is that history doesn’t just involve masses and voices, but systems. White people throughout the South lived and continue to live in a sociopolitical system that aids and abets racist policies.
None of this is news, though. It’s what drives the while liberal response to racism, which combines white “race-penance” / “race traitor” politics with a firm belief that if you close your eyes and hum loud enough, the magical post-modern wishing fairy will make racism go away. How much of either element appears in any given individual or situation depends on the person.
However, what Haley Barbour’s comments lay bare is how easy it is to say, “But I didn’t do that! I was A Good White Person.” Just as easy, really, as it is to stare into a webcam and tell the Internet how your life is now magical White Gay sunshine, rainbows, and unicorn farts expelled to the tune of “It’s Raining Men.”
But, you see, it helps no one but you to be seen–to perform–as a Happy Gay or A Good White Person (unless you are, it seems, a politician). Frankly, no one else cares that you are A Good White Person. To be A Good White Person is to be a decent human being. It’s like expecting a ticker-tape parade because you went a year without kicking puppies every time they crossed your path. Whoop-dee-fucking-do.
(I should note here, I am speaking as a reformed Good White Person who’s by no means perfect.)
What’s the second step, then, beyond being A Good White Person? Laura Conway, over at the MaddowBlog says that
“if we can understand the Mississippi we were born into, if we’re willing to admit not just what our kinfolk did wrong but what we did decades later without thinking twice, we can start to fix the injustice that remains. This is our particular responsibility and our particular offering. Please look more deeply, Mr. Barbour.”
And I agree. But being conscious of one’s own place in history is only part of the problem. The other part is giving up on the belief in the transformative power of Not Being An Asshole. You are not a better person for rejecting your privilege. You are a decent person, and you should expect other people to be decent as well. Decent people do their best to be conscious, to think about what they say, to push against discriminatory language and policies–and swallow their pride when they fail to be decent. They do not act as they do because it makes them better but because they, through their actions, exemplify what should be the average.