Haley Barbour’s “Nixon to China” Opportunity on Race

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Formerly an elementary school teacher in Sunflower, Mississippi, with Teach for America, Chris Myers Asch is now the co-founder of the U.S. Public Service Academy. He holds a PhD in American history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Run, Haley, Run!” cry many conservatives searching for a champion in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

The charming Mississippi governor would be a formidable foe.  A successful two-term governor who exudes Reaganesque, can-do optimism, Barbour has the experience, track record, and personality to make a strong run.

But he is stalked by one question:  Can he win?  More specifically, can a white Mississippian with an unmistakable Southern drawl defeat the nation’s first black president?

The answer is no—unless he comes clean on race.

Barbour’s liability could be a hidden asset.  He has a unique opportunity to help move America forward on race by honestly confronting his state’s (and his own) racial past, calling for policies that address racial inequities, and challenging his supporters to overcome their racial biases.

This is no easy task, certainly.  It would demand of Barbour a courage that few politicians can muster.  Heretofore, the smooth, savvy governor has proven remarkably clumsy and tone-deaf on racial matters.  In just the past few months, he blithely dismissed segregated life as not “that bad”, defended the white supremacist Citizens’ Councils, and refused to repudiate one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.

Barbour has since backtracked from each statement, but his sentiments have generated a flood of criticism not simply because they are historically inaccurate but also because they flow naturally into the grooves of racial politics set by generations of his predecessors.  For much of the past century, his state symbolized the worst excesses of segregation, racism, and resistance—the very word “Mississippi” conjured up images of white-robed vigilantes and black men swinging from trees.  Barbour occupies the same office as notorious white supremacists such as Theodore Bilbo and James Vardaman, who denounced efforts to improve black schools by saying that “education only spoils a good field hand.”

When Barbour says something racially insensitive, it confirms a national stereotype—most Americans simply do not trust white Mississippians to have a clue about race.  It may not be fair, but any white politician from the state who aspires to national office must deal with Mississippi’s tortured racial history.  Just ask Trent Lott.

And yet, therein lies the extraordinary opportunity for Barbour.

As a Republican with impeccable conservative credentials, Barbour could tackle the race issue in a way that few others could—certainly not President Barack Obama or any other Democratic leader.  Because he has “street cred” among white conservatives, he could persuade his supporters to think differently about race.  Like the anti-communist Richard Nixon opening diplomatic relations with China, a Barbour initiative to talk honestly about racial inequity in our society would be a bold, unexpected move that would have tremendous benefits to the country.

We need his voice on race.  America—and Mississippi, perhaps more than anywhere else—has come a long way in the past half-century.  We have dismantled the legal infrastructure of white supremacy, opened our institutions to people of all races, and elected a black president.  Yet, a cursory glance at our public schools, our prisons, or our inner cities tells us that we still have a long way to go before we achieve truly equal opportunity in our country.

Unfortunately, many conservative white Americans have spent the past three years nursing racial grievances and perpetuating fantasies about President Obama.  Choose your medium—radio, television, Internet—and you will find conservative commentators spewing racially-tinged invective and innuendo.  For all of George Bush’s efforts to attract racial minorities to the GOP through his “compassionate conservatism,” the far right of the party has not gotten the message.

That is where Barbour comes in.  He can help bring the GOP back from the brink of the racial abyss by directly challenging the birthers and the nativists.  He can condemn the casual glorification of the Confederacy and the ignorant dismissal of civil rights triumphs.  He can encourage his supporters to recognize that racial inequality remains a serious problem that undermines our nation.  In short, Barbour can show that conservatism does not have to be a racially exclusive and insensitive ideology.

So go ahead and run, Haley.  But if you do, don’t indulge the prejudices of your supporters or strategically duck racial issues.  Instead, use your campaign as an extended conversation—not just a “race speech”—with your conservative white base about race.  Use your considerable skills of persuasion to help convince your backers about the need to acknowledge and address racial inequities.  Use your Southern voice to call on all of us, and especially your base, to confront our racial past with honesty and humility.

You may not win the race, but you will have done our country a tremendous service.

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james joseph butler - 4/3/2011

Just about the same time President Obama speaks to the truth of the Middle East; America's original sin is its unequivocal support for Israel, Haley Barbour will speak to the original sin of the South.