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Perry’s Rock And What It Says About Us

Memo Pad

Perry’s Rock And What It Says About Us


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: “N—-rhead.” 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 so-called “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 “N—-rhead.”

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.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

(c) 2011 The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. FlorenceLevy October 6, 2011

    Someone needs to eliminate the entire tea party that is vote them out.
    If any of the republicans get into office I will be leaving this country.
    are people out there that ignorant as to vote in any republican and think that they will keep free rights because under Perry and the other tea party members the want to eliminate every ones rights and make the rich richer. there peple are worse the the
    clu clux clan and Hitler

  2. StanleyEBalgobin October 6, 2011

    Well said Florence. The 99% had better wake up and fast. The Occupy Wall Street movement is growing toward an “American Spring” Rampant Capitalism have put the powerful money interests, and Corporations in charge. Politics is a farce, and our government is a joke. Ironically, it is this very greed that will bring down the whole ship, albeit our country and with it the planet. To say the present course is unsustainable is a “no brainer” Exceptionalism one of the factors generating illegal wars, invasions and occupations in other lands is unconscionable. The T Party is a lunatic fringe group disaffected with the status quo with an agenda to expedite the disparity between the super wealthy and the struggling poor, who were once the middle class. I do not like what my country is becoming and wish and hope we realize what is at stake before it is too late.

  3. RonT2011 October 7, 2011

    There is an old saying that goes like this “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” That may seem immature but there is so much truth in it. Who cares what Rick Perry calls a hunting club, but there is one for sure he is not the one to lead our country back in to the greatness that it so deserves. Mr Obama has made mistakes along the way but that only proves he is human. Since he has taken the oath he awakes every morning thinking of our country and at night he says a prayer for our country,the sames as myself and a lot of people I know. The US is still a great place to be and so is the continental groups of the Americans. I hope and pray every night that all the issues that we as people are faced with will be resolved before I pass and the only that will happen is if we as a whole stand together. God Bless the Americans and what WE ALL stand for in human decendiency Ron Townsend PS; Love Peace to all Mankind, that is what all our gods are hoping that we will accomplish before we pass.


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