Perhaps the silliest narrative to spring up during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was the fantasy that his presidency would bring forth the end of racial America. Pundits, mostly on the left, nearly wet themselves with glee entertaining this delusional idea. Obviously post-racial America has yet to emerge. The fiction of race retains a strong grasp on humanity as a whole and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future — and America is no exception. Tea Party Republicans bristled at the notion that race was a prime motivator for the disdain many in the movement express towards the president. Scores of Tea Party leaders cried foul when the NAACP issued a report that labeled the movement as racially motivated. But if conservatives and opponents of the President’s agenda think the racist critique was deafening in 2010, it will be increase by a magnitude of a thousand if Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour gains the Republican nomination.
Barbour has not publicly announced whether he’s running for president, but his name is one of the many being floated as a Republican hopeful. The Weekly Standard has a spotlight piece on the good ol’ boy for Yazoo City. The profile gives unfamiliar readers a look into Barbour’s conservative credentials and introduces a bit of his back story. Tucked away in the third page of the article is a dozy of a quote that will haunt, and potential destroy, any presidential campaign Barbour may or may not be planning. When asked about growing up in Jim Crow Mississippi, the Governor offers up this gem, “I just don’t remember it being that bad.” Yikes. I cannot think of anything worse for conservatives trying to dispel the aura of racism than to nominate a man that recalled Jim Crow Mississippi as not being that bad. (I will not get into the Governor’s tepid praise of the Citizens Council, an organization formed to protect segregation.)
A Barbour nomination will cause the toxicity level of politics to skyrocket. America does not handle race conversations well, especially in the political realm. When Rand Paul floated the notion that he might not have supported one provision in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 due to how it violates private property rights, the talking heads threw themselves into fits. Can you imagine how those same heads might react to Barbour’s comments if he gains the nomination? Does anyone realistically think the conversation will retain any semblance of civil discourse?
Ads from politically active non-profit groups will almost certainly make matters worse. The famous images and footage of the Jim Crow era will be plastered across millions of television screens. An ominous voice over will provide the message’s punch: “Does Haley Barbour really think Jim Crow wasn’t all that bad?”
Vestiges of the Confederacy hang on the walls of Barbour’s office. A portrait of the University Greys is accompanied by a Confederate flag signed by Jefferson Davis. In reality these details matter little, but it is not hard to imagine how these idiosyncratic details do not help lessen the sting of Barbour’s “not bad” comments.
Barbour has since clarified the comments he made in The Weekly Standard, but it is unlikely that his clarification will be enough to overcome the accusation of racism — especially since Barbour would be running in a highly partisan environment and against the first African-American President.
In many ways, it doesn’t matter if Barbour harbors racist views. If his political opponents can craft the perception that he does, it will be enough to ensure that the campaign of 2012 will be worse, in terms of racial overtones, than 2010. Though I don’t think America, or the world for that matter, will ever look past race as a identifying aspect of society, it would be nice if our political campaigns refrained from using race issues to cudgel opponents. Regardless of the content of his character and the wisdom of his policies, it appears, to me, that a Barbour nomination would engender a bitter and vitriolic race-related political discourse. Hopefully I am wrong.