A few words about Rick Perry’s rock.
This would be the one at the entrance to a remote Texas hunting ground used by Perry for decades, the one painted with the name of the camp: “Niggerhead.” The Texas governor says his father painted over the ugly name almost 30 years ago, though some locals interviewed by the Washington Post in a story that ran Sunday claimed to have seen it there much more recently.
That same day, Herman Cain, who is competing with Perry for the GOP presidential nomination, called the word on the rock “vile,” and accused Perry of being “insensitive.” He was pretty much the only candidate to go after Perry about the rock though he was backpedaling a day later.
“I really don’t care about that word,” he said, after being accused of playing the “race card.”
It was difficult to escape a suspicion that, though he is African American, he never cared about the perceived insult as much as he cared about the opportunity to inflict damage on Perry. Cain thus managed to make both his attack and retreat feel calculated and cynical.
Meanwhile, the rock becomes the latest outrage du jour, meaning the momentary controversies through which what passes for discussion of race and privilege in this country are carried. Think Bill O’Reilly and Don Imus shooting their mouths off. Think Andrew Breitbart sliming Shirley Sherrod. Periodically, the news delivers these neatly-packaged, self-contained dustups that allow political leaders and others to line up on the side of the angels, harrumphing the necessary condemnations, while never venturing too deeply into what the dustups tell us about us.
Where race is concerned, people sometimes act as if the past is a distant country, a far, forgotten place we ought never revisit, unless it be for the occasional purpose of congratulating ourselves on how far we have come.
But the past has this way of crashing the party. Usually, it does so with the relative subtlety of statistics quantifying ongoing racial bias in hiring, education and criminal justice. Occasionally, it does so with the bluntness of a sign reading “Niggerhead.”
The name is not unique. To the contrary, the map of the United States was once dotted with similar words. For example, there is still a Negrohead Point in Florida and a Negro Cove in Maryland, both changed from the original slur in a fig leaf of decency. There is also Dago Peak in Idaho, Jew Hill in Pennsylvania and Redskin Mountain in Colorado.
Not to let the Texas governor off too easily, then, but to make this all about Perry is to miss the point. It is also about us. What does it say about America, about fairness in hiring, education, justice, that such place names were ever acceptable — or that some people don’t understand why they no longer are?
“It’s just a name,” a man named David Davis told the Post. He is a Texas judge, a man to whom, we may suppose, African Americans periodically come seeking justice. “Like those are vertical blinds,” he said, looking at a window in his courtroom. “It’s just what it was called.”
That rationalization ought to tell you that that rock is not the political football Cain sought to make it. Rather, it is a reproach to the unearned smugness of modern days. And a reminder that the past is closer than we think.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.