Phil Robertson and The Atlantic Magazine (Updated)

“The Real Duck Dynasty Scandal: Phil Robertson’s Comments on Race”
Jonathan Merritt
The Atlantic
December 19, 2013

I have refrained from commenting on the matter of Duck Commander founder Phil Robertson’s comments to GQ magazine and the A&E Network‘s subsequent action to censor him. Living in America grants Mr. Robertson the right to speak his mind. It also grants the A&E Network the ability to operate in a manner that its owners believe will protect their business. It grants neither side immunity from the consequences of the words they speak or the actions they take.

In keeping with this blog’s effort to rise above the daily piff-paff of politics in order to focus on substantive issues of principle and policy, I thought to let the chips in this matter fall as they may.

Until, that is, I read an uncharacteristically shrill j’accuse by Jonathan Merritt in The Atlantic that stopped just short of branding the entrepreneur/patriarch a racist.

“Buried under the firestorm of media and public outrage over Robertson’s comments on sexuality is his stunning insinuation that blacks were quite happy in the Jim Crow South:

Merritt’s issue is with these remarks to GQ by Robertson:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field …. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word! … Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

To which Merrit reacted:

He may envision a Jim Crow South where blacks were treated well and sang happy spirituals all the day long, but this is not the South many African-Americans knew in this era.”

Now, perhaps it’s me, but nowhere in those remarks did I see Robertson even suggest (as Merritt asserts that he does) that his experience in Louisiana extended to the entirety of the Jim Crow South. Robertson never denies any of the evidence of mistreatment of African Americans. He never asserts that awful, disgusting things didn’t happen to the African Americans of the south (or of the North, for that matter – remember the Chicago Race Riots of 1919?) He simply relates his own experiences without any attempt to make them universal.

I understand that Merritt does not want history whitewashed. I don’t want it whitewashed either: indeed, I want my mixed-race son and all of his classmates to know that racism is a latent evil that must never again be shown a glimmer of tolerance.

But we should also remember that personal narratives that run counter to the mainstream of history are not experiences to be erased simply because they, inconveniently, don’t fit the broader story; instead, they should be understood as pieces of a greater puzzle that must be understood in their context.

There were poor white people in the south that didn’t hate African Americans. There were African Americans who got along with poor white people. And somehow, despite their circumstances, they were able to find happiness. That does not justify poverty or oppression: on the contrary, it suggests that there is nothing inevitable about racism or misery, and that even in the meanest quarters of this nation lie the roots of harmony and tolerance.

If that does not fit your narrative, sorry about that.

There is enough racism left in America that it need not be conjured. There are enough racists that it is unnecessary to brand every over-40 white male with right-of-center leanings and a rifle as a closet Byron De La Beckwith. And there must be enough tolerance in this nation to allow a retired entrepreneur to describe his past and his feelings without turning it into a battle in the culture wars.

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