Haley Barbour’s Racist Remark Was No Mistake

When the Mississippi governor said he didn’t remember the South’s Citizens Councils as being that bad, it was no gaffe—he was speaking to his likely 2012 voter base.

Haley Barbour speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Nov. 3, 2010. (Photo: Tom Williams, Roll Call / Getty Images)

Most of the uproar over Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s comment, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” misses the point entirely. When the potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate made the remark to Andrew Ferguson in an interview for The Weekly Standard, speaking in defense of racist Citizens Councils that ruled the South before and during the civil rights era, it was no mere slip of the tongue. Barbour was simply playing the “Southern Strategy” card.

While some pundits are castigating the leader of the Republican Governors Association and hinting that he’s a racist for his defense of an era and way of life that most African Americans don’t recall too fondly, I submit that Barbour is not a racist—he’s far worse: He’s a politician, and an exceptionally skilled one at that.

A true racist is usually a twisted little person who would harm others if they could, but is powerless to carry through on their twisted views. But an experienced politician like Barbour is far more dangerous. If elected to the presidency he could move to kill health care, further cut funding to public schools, open up more public lands for the oil industry to exploit while despoiling the environment, poke even larger holes in the fabric of the social safety net that is already frayed and porous beyond belief—and gleefully widen the chasm between the haves and the have nots in America.

Even a cursory study of Barbour’s past reveals the recent remark was not out of character. In the past he’s recalled that turbulent time when Ole Miss was violently forced to integrate as “a very pleasant experience.”

In his office he’s been known to show interviewers his prized possession: The last handwritten note of Ronald Reagan, dated Nov. 14, 1994, mere days after the president had announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer's and was retreating from public life. It was addressed to Barbour, who at the time was the chairman of the Republican Party.

Dear Haley, 

Congratulations on a great job for the Republican Party. I couldn't be happier with the results. And please don't count me out! I'll be putting in my licks for Republicans as long as I'm able.

This is the same Ronald Reagan that, immediately after being nominated by Republicans as their presidential candidate, played the Southern Strategy to the hilt by giving his first speech on August 3, 1980, at the Neshoba County Fair, just a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town widely associated with the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers. In it, he repeatedly used what had by then become the coded racist buzzwords: “states’ rights”—the notion that each state has the right under the Constitution to perpetuate its traditions any way citizens deem fit, even if those traditions were racist.

I submit that Barbour is not a racist—he’s far worse: He’s a politician, and an exceptionally skilled one at that.

Such subtly coded racist rhetoric resonated with voters then, just as Barbour’s revisionist version of history of the South he came of age in resonates with his base now. The man who wants to challenge Obama for the presidency two years from now knows that by keeping a Confederate flag on the wall of his office, publicly praising the leaders of the old Confederacy, and occasionally seeming to slip and say something that gives conniptions to people who would never vote for him anyway, he’s only solidifying his chances of securing the Republican nomination in 2012.

Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.