In the annals of racial cluelessness, the episode this week in Virginia was a classic.
Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell, who had successfully masked his social conservatism last fall by campaigning for office as a moderate, apparently decided that it was now safe to play to his base - specifically, to those folks within the base who still pine for the good old days when Virginians committed treason against the United States of America. So he bowed to a request from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and decreed that April shall be Confederate History Month, celebrating "the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War."
But after claiming that "all Virginians" took pride in the Confederacy's sacrifices, McDonnell was duly informed that one particularly relevant aspect of the Confederacy - indeed, its raison d'etre - had been conspicuously omitted from his proclamation...namely, all the pesky details about the enslavement of human beings, the forced labor of human beings, the whipping of human beings, indeed the creation of a renegade nation, headquartered in the city of Richmond, that believed it was a sovereign right to keep those human beings in chains.
When reminded about the slavery legacy, McDonnell initially lapsed into denial, insisting that "there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states...I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia." No surprise there; in right-wing Republican circles, it's certainly not significant that Virginia back in the day enslaved nearly half a million people.
McDonnell stuck to his story for roughly 24 hours, until he was publicly eviscerated by Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television. Johnson, he listened to. She had endorsed him in the '09 gubernatorial race, lauding his pro-business agenda and his professed lack of interest in hot-button conservative issues, but there was no way she would abide this air-brushing of Confederate history. So, two days ago, she released a statement, declaring that McDonnell's "insensitive" omission of slavery was "both academically flawed and personally offensive."
McDonnell suddenly insisted that he had seen the light. Or maybe it was just a desperate attempt at damage control. He put out a new statement, saying he had made a "mistake," and apologizing for his "major omission." (The same omission that he deemed minor and insignificant just 24 hours earlier.)
His original proclamation is what matters; in fact, it barely differed from the proclamation issued by one of his Republican predecessors, George Allen, back in the mid-'90s. Allen had officially lauded Virginia's "struggle for independence and sovereign rights," without ever mentioning the racist tradition that Virginians had sought to perpetuate.
Most importantly, this is not just a Virginia thing. Below the Mason-Dixon line, this is a popular mindset in certain white conservative precincts. I got a taste of it back in 2003, when I spent a week in Georgia talking to the "flaggers" - the folks who thought it was a disgrace that the state flag was no longer adorned with the Confederate stars and bars. (A Democratic governor had removed the Confederate emblem in 2001; the flaggers rose up by the thousands to help oust him from office in 2002.)
Anyway, when I reminded the flaggers that many people viewed the Confederate emblem as a synonym for slavery, I was informed that (a) slavery had nothing to do with anything, because the war was really about "saving our heritage," or (b) that the slavery charge was "bigotry against us," or (c) that slavery was merely a "race card" dealt by "loudmouths in the victimization industry." That kind of stuff.
At the state Capitol that week, I also spoke with Tyrone Brooks, a lawmaker who had worked for 20 years in Atlanta's civil rights community. What he said in 2003 could easily apply to what transpired in Virginia this week. Referring to those who wish to honor the Confederacy, he said: "Racism is the foundation of their movement. After all these years, you'd think they'd be amenable to putting the Confederate era in a museum, in its proper context. But for these people who continue to promote it - knowing what that emblem means today - are they suffering from amnesia, or are they just ignorant."
Or, like Gov. McDonnell and his Confederate-loving followers, are they just willfully oblivious?
For the GOP, it's unfortunate that McDonnell (considered one of the party's future stars) was struggling to recognize the significance of slavery during the same week that party bigwigs were gathering in New Orleans for the annual three-day Southern Republican Leadership Conference. Care to guess how many elected black officials are on the speaker's list? Zip. (Unless you count J.C. Watts, the most recent black GOP congressman...who left office in 2003.) And in yesterday's opening session, care to guess how many speakers mentioned Hurricane Katrina, and the havoc it famously wreaked on the nearby black neighborhoods? Zip. Is it any wonder that the overwhelmingly white GOP just can't connect with black people?