Why It’s OK to Ignore Phil Robertson’s Racism

Surely there’s room to focus on the new Civil Rights revolution, for which the first one laid foundations

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Margaret Croft / The News-Star / AP

Phil Robertson at his home in western Ouachita Parish, La., on May 15, 2013.

Amidst the current uproar over “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson’s take on homosexuality, we have heard rather little about the other wing of his social commentary, the part about how good things were for black people living under Jim Crow in Louisiana. And in 2013 that’s just fine.

To be sure, Roberts would be out of place as a social science teacher on either subject. He considers homosexuality a “bestiality” that sins against God, and enough so to justify a detour into anatomical topics that casts gay men in a rather somber light. Meanwhile, he warmly compares black laborers he knew growing up to “white trash” like him, remembering them as working for farmers “singing and happy,” more inclined to do so “pre-entitlement, pre-welfare.”

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Splendid. But the gay part is more important than the black part this time.

Phil Robertson is an old man of 67, and frankly, why should we care that his take on black history is not exactly enlightened? Such people are always with us, and do not prevent change from happening. A centenarian of my acquaintance who lived a Northern life is given to claiming that in the North, as opposed to the South, black people, and race relations, were “just fine” until people like Martin Luther King started “stirring them up.”

Okay. That was all some people could see from their privileged perspectives, but the Civil Rights revolution happened despite them.

And here we are.

There were plenty of perfectly intelligent white people who thought that way even when King was alive. One can watch him all but roasted on “Meet the Press” not long before his murder, by what were then considered the intelligentsia.

And here we are.

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Some insist that America must achieve a degree of sociohistorical enlightenment on what black America has gone through, in order to have sympathy for black problems today, rather than classifying black people as somehow inherently incapable—or even “bestial.” There’s a point there—and it has happened, to the extent that it ever will. All anyone has to do is consult the coverage of “12 Years a Slave” to understand this. Anyone who says in 2013 that white America is in some kind of “denial” about slavery is being willfully blind to the fact that change happens.

Now, no one has ever thought all of America would completely “get” black America’s past. And Robertson is precisely proof of that. We need not fear any “repercussions” of what an ignorant man not long for this earth spouts off in an interview.

Here we will stay, and move on.

What really helps black America today is focusing on what we can do now, not making white people understand why the past makes it hard. And that’s the thing: the gay rights revolution, the new frontier on Civil Rights, is now. The shift in public opinion about homosexuality and gay marriage has been seismic over the past few years, and it is the duty of the enlightened segment of a modern society to support such transitions when they’re happening.

In that light, discrimination against gay people is more overt in modern America than against black people. Yes. We’re not used to thinking of it that way, but the general consensus on racism is that one of the hardest things about it is its subtlety. Sure, nasty words against black people in comments sections will always be with us. But there’s a difference between this and ongoing, open comparison of gay people to animals, designating their sexuality as a sinful departure from basic human dignity, and families disowning them.

Comments like Robertson’s of that kind, then, require urgent condemnation in 2013, especially given how few people would have batted an eye about them as recently as 15 years ago. Let’s face it—even embrace it—that we’re further along on racism now than we are on homophobia. Not all the way there—yes, Trayvon Martin. But closer than we’re always comfortable admitting.

Some will ask why we can’t attack Robertson on both fronts. And the answer is that it’s easier for we humans to focus on one thing at a time. As to reminding America about black America’s troubled past and present, let’s remember that Fox News’ Megyn Kelly spent last week on the griddle for insisting on the whiteness of Santa Claus, and that in a few weeks there will have ample time to discuss race on the occasion of Dr. King’s birthday.

Surely there’s room this time for focusing on the new Civil Rights revolution, for which the first one laid foundations.

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