Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Racial targeting

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"The extension of slavery is the vital point of the whole controversy between the North and the South. ... They believe slavery a sin, we do not and there lies the trouble." Those are the words of Arkansas Gov. Henry Massey Rector at the Arkansas Secession Convention in March 1861 in his plea to the delegates to vote to leave the Union. A few weeks later, Arkansas delegates voted to secede.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the people of the state were initially split on the issue, but when it came time to cast ballots to stay or leave the Union, the delegate vote was nearly unanimous in favor of secession. There were a number of reasons for the people of the South to break from the Union, but slavery was at the top of the list. Over the years, a sense of embarrassment, shame, or just plain old ignorance has led to a revision of those reasons that birthed the motto "heritage, not hate." Give me a break, OK?

Echoing this revision in what can only be an effort to try to hold on to the president's shrinking, but passionate, right-wing base, this week White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly gave an interview to Fox News claiming the removal of Confederate statutes is "a dangerous scrubbing of history" and that a "lack of ability to compromise" led to the Civil War. He did not specify further on the specifics of this failure to compromise, but I'm not sure there is common ground to be had when fighting about whether or not to own other human beings.

I am not holding out for an apology from Kelly. But if there is one, I won't believe it is genuine. After all, this is the man who stood in the White House briefing room and "scrubbed history" himself by lying to the American people about a speech given by Democratic U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida and calling her an "empty barrel." He probably needs to check out her service to the people of Florida and a mentoring program she created called 5000 Role Models of Excellence that aims to help at-risk minority youth graduate from high school. Instead of criticizing her and making fun of her hats, the Trump administration should be begging her to take the place of that disaster of a secretary of education and ultimate insider, Betsy Devos. Wilson's graduation rate for the students in her program hovers around 95 percent. But instead of apologizing or listening, Kelly doubled down by refusing to apologize and making that asinine comment about the Civil War.

This is just one occurrence in a recent spate of attacks on people of color by this administration. Sure, Trump, reverting to his long habit of making fun of physical appearances, recently called fellow GOP member and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker "liddle." He also continued his assault on Arizona Sen. John McCain in a series of tweets. But Trump's favorite targets seem to be men and women of color. The members of his administration, including Kelly and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, are marching in lockstep behind him. The list is long: Khizir Khan, Myeshia Johnson, Jemele Hill, Colin Kaepernick, Stephen Curry, Rep. Wilson, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. One of the federal judges presiding over Special Counsel Robert Mueller's indictments, Judge Deborah A. Robinson, is a woman of color, so expect to add a new name to that list.

I've seen more than a few people call these feuds "harmless distractions" that keep Trump and Co. from picking bigger fights with North Korea and Iran and that some of those who are targeted by Trump, such as Wilson and Mayor Cruz, enjoy the attention. The former attitude requires us to look the other way while the victims of Trump carry the weight of our safety on their backs, and the latter is victim-blaming at its worst. It's the same "boys will be boys" mentality, instead now it seems to be "racists will be racists."

Trump is hoping the "heritage" brigade will continue to support him and save his presidency. He makes it easy to blame his targets as being unpatriotic, attention-seeking and too political. What is hard is to acknowledge our true "heritage," and that many of our Southern ancestors went to war in order to preserve the right to own people as slaves. But that's what happened. If you have any doubt, go back and read the words of Gov. Rector and think about what he said. Now think about the fact that a group of people in Clay County thought it would be a good idea to name a town after him. I don't blame the city of Rector for leaving its namesake's convention speech off the city website. It's embarrassing. But not acknowledging it is scrubbing away our history. Since the Arkansas Legislature is so keen on tinkering with school curriculum, maybe next session its members can ensure that all students in Arkansas history classes read the speech from Rector that helped drive the state from the Union. I doubt that will ever happen. You don't get votes from trying to educate, so we will see the same old efforts to placate. Meanwhile, Trump's list of targets grows longer and longer.


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