By Luke Brinker
The Washington Post reported this weekend that the entrance to a hunting property leased by Rick Perry’s family included a large rock with the word “Niggerhead” painted on it. Predictably, the Post’s report generated a backlash in the right-wing blogosphere.
Even as Herman Cain, the ascendant presidential candidate and former Godfathers Pizza CEO, denounced the use of the epithet, Perry defenders like Henry Payne at the National Review portrayed the story as part of a smear campaign by pointy-headed elites in the lamestream media. Payne reacted as if the Post accused Perry of painting the despicable word himself, but the Post’s reporter did nothing of the sort. In talking to numerous area residents – including a septuagenarian black woman who said she’d heard the word so often growing up that she’d been desensitized to it – the Post placed the revelation in the context of a South with a deeply embedded, persistent legacy of racial tension. Indeed, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that the “Niggerhead” story “says very little about Rick Perry, and a lot more about the country he seeks to govern.”
So “Is Rick Perry racist?” is really the wrong question to ask. One should always be careful about leveling such a grave allegation, and Perry’s moderate – dare I say compassionate – record on immigration indicates he doesn’t harbor the racial animus of, say, a Jesse Helms. Perry’s sagging fortunes are unlikely to be helped by the story, but he won’t lose the nomination because of it. Republicans’ doubts about his policy acumen and conservative purity will likely be enough to deal a death blow to his campaign. While the political implications of Niggerheadgate will probably be limited, the story offers yet another opportunity to discuss the continued manifestations of racism in American society – including via the capital punishment system Perry so vigorously supports. Above all else, this episode puts the lie to the glib notion that we’ve become a “post-racial” society.