Commentary Magazine


RE: The South’s Past Haunts Barbour’s Candidacy

Jonathan is right — the racial-sensitivity problem is not just Haley Barbour’s.

No doubt there are double standards when it comes to judging Republicans, but conservatives are not blameless in the process either. It isn’t just a matter of flubbing their words — many conservatives are either unaware of the pervasiveness of racial discrimination prior to the enactment of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, or they choose, like Barbour, to engage in selective memory.

To put the era in perspective, Abby Thernstrom, in her seminal study of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Whose Votes Count?, notes that fewer than 7 percent of voting-age blacks were registered in Mississippi prior to federal registrars being sent in after the Act was passed; by 1967, the number of registered blacks had jumped to 60 percent. And it is hard to imagine that Barbour wasn’t at least aware of the murder of three civil-rights activists in 1964 in Meridian, Mississippi, just 140 miles from his hometown of Yazoo City, not to mention the segregation that permeated every facet of public life. Haley and I graduated high school the same year, and even though I was living in Denver at the time, I was very much aware of what was going on in Mississippi. To ignore this history requires an act of will.

Many of us neoconservatives, however, were active in the civil-rights movement of the era and have no blinders about the degradation and discrimination to which blacks were subjected prior to the enactment of federal civil-rights protections. When neoconservatives argue that we support colorblind equal opportunity — as opposed to racial preferences for minorities — we do so with a moral authority rooted in our having always fought for this position. Unfortunately, the opposition to racial preferences that harm whites (and Asians) coming from many conservatives today is far more fervent than was their opposition to racial discrimination that harmed blacks in the past. It would help conservatives’ cause to acknowledge that failure rather than pretend it was not one.