23 December 2013

Phil Robertson “Blind and Naïve to the Suffering of Others”

This month a widely discussed article in GQ quoted the duck-call magnate and reality-television personality Robertson saying, among other things:

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.
We have to wonder then where “singing the blues” came from.

The New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, who also grew up in northern Louisiana, calmly commented on Robertson’s claim:
While this is possible, it is highly improbable. Robertson is 67 years old, born into the Jim Crow South. Only a man blind and naïve to the suffering of others could have existed there and not recognized that there was a rampant culture of violence against blacks, with incidents and signs large and small, at every turn, on full display. Whether he personally saw interpersonal mistreatment of them is irrelevant. . . .

Furthermore, Robertson doesn’t seem to acknowledge the possibility that black workers he encountered possessed the most minimal social sophistication and survival skills necessary to not confess dissatisfaction to a white person on a cotton farm (no matter how “trashy” that white person might think himself).
It’s not at all difficult to find signs of racial bigotry all around Phil Robertson as he grew up, allegedly untouched by that environment.

Phil Robertson was born in 1946 outside the town of Vivian, Louisiana, in the northwest corner of the state. That town is in Caddo Parish, where the big city and county seat is Shreveport. In the same year Robertson was born, a group of white men lynched a black war veteran named John C. Jones in the neighboring county. After the local law-enforcement system failed, the federal government stepped in, bringing men to trial in Shreveport. The all-white jury acquitted all the defendants in 1947. When Jones’s widow sued a sheriff for releasing her husband to the lynch mob, her suit was thrown out of court. Obviously Robertson played no role in those events, but he also seems blind to what message they sent to local African-Americans.

Like the rest of the American South, Vivian was strictly segregated on racial lines. Even today in the town’s Kansas City Southern railroad station, “Formerly segregated waiting rooms are found inside on each side of the ticket office.”

In 1954, when Robertson turned eight, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. Nevertheless, the schools in Caddo Parish remained racially divided for another decade. Robertson attended North Caddo High, which was all white. The school’s teams are called the Rebels, and until recently the mascot was a Confederate man.

Not until 1965, the year after Robertson graduated from high school, did the Caddo Parish schools start to integrate. In Shreveport, the C. E. Byrd High School opened to a total of three African-American students. One of them, Brenda Braggs, described her experience this way:
I cried many days. . . . They called me black this, and you black that. But my mother kept saying, “You can do this.” And I never gave up.
That effort to desegregate the Caddo Parish schools took several years. Officials tried redistricting, busing, and merging historically white and black schools. Whites launched private schools for their own children and cut the public-school budget.

Meanwhile, Robertson attended Louisiana Tech University, playing quarterback for its football team from 1965 to 1967. That university also desegregated under court order in 1965, and then expelled its first black student under what Breaking the Line author Samuel G. Freedman called “a dubious accusation of theft.” Robertson’s successor as Louisiana Tech quarterback was Terry Bradshaw, who in his autobiography Looking Deep wrote about not having any black teammates until he came to Pittsburgh; “It didn’t take me long to figure out I was prejudiced,” Bradshaw’s book says.

In his twenties, Robertson went into teaching. I can’t find information on where he taught or when he settled in Monroe, Louisiana, his current home. However, that city’s struggles against racial discrimination in the schools are well documented. Isabel Wilkerson’s history of the African-American migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, profiles Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who left Monroe in 1953 because of the obstacles he encountered there. In 1960, the mayor of Monroe sent a telegram to the Louisiana state legislature urging them to continue fighting for racial segregation and “our traditional way of life.” The first black student to attend Monroe’s Neville High School in 1965 “suffered daily harassment and was often the victim of beatings by Monroe Police officers who, ironically, were assigned to protect him.” Canadian children’s book author Pamela Porter remembered moving to Monroe in 1968 and experiencing its schools:
Living there was quite an eye-opening experience for me because Louisiana was fighting very hard not to desegregate and only desegregated by a Supreme Court order. . . . Just ordinary experiences in that place were extraordinary for me because I hadn’t been used to seeing such blatant racism.
And of course Monroe wasn’t exceptional in the Deep South at the time. Hundreds of other cities were going through the same transition.

It’s impossible to credit Phil Robertson’s claim that he didn’t witness any of this. He just chose not to notice other people’s suffering.

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