On Sunday the Washington Post revealed that Texas Governor Rick Perry’s family hunting ranch was named “Niggerhead.” Perry maintains that his parents painted over the sign on the rock at the ranch’s entrance right after buying it, but some visitors to the ranch interviewed by the Post say otherwise. Perry has come under fire for the insensitivity this demonstrates from his presidential primary opponent African-American businessman Herman Cain, who has risen to a tie with Perry in the Post’s latest national poll. Perry responded with the mantra of most Republicans accused of racism: that some of his best friends are black. “Rick Perry has a long and strong record of inclusiveness and appointing African Americans to key state posts, including Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, his former chief of staff and general counsels, university regents, parks and wildlife commissioner and other high profile posts,” said his campaign in a statement.
The race of Perry’s appointees is not nearly as important as the content of his policies. So how is Perry’s record on race and civil rights?
Perry may be better than his predecessor, George W. Bush, but that’s damning him with faint praise. “We had no access to Governor Bush and we had no rapport with him,” says Gary Bledsoe president of the Texas State Conference of the NAACP Branches. “We will disagree with Perry, but he’s got an open mind.”
Perry’s better actions on civil rights, according to Bledsoe, include signing the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, a ban on racial profiling and a law to ensure adequate legal representation of poor defendants. Those laws were all passed in 2001. (The hate crimes law may actually prove to be a liability for Perry among conservatives.)
More recently Perry has frequently been at odds with civil rights activists. Perry has cut state education spending and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Cutting both of those programs does disproportionate harm to African-American children.
Other changes in Texas law, though, have a more overtly discriminatory impact. Take the Towards EXcellence [sic], Access and Success (TEXAS) Grant: it is a state program help students with financial need pay for college. In addition to cutting funding for it, Texas rewrote the eligibility requirements in a manner that disadvantages students of color. “They try to give preference to low and moderate income youths who took advanced classes,” explains Bledsoe. “But many schools, especially minority schools, don’t have [those classes]. Then they’re using test scores, which are biased. Of the five areas they chose, only one of the five was fair to African-American students.”
Other recent laws signed by Perry are discriminatory in their actual intent. Most pernicious is the new requirement Perry signed into law in May that voters produce a government-issued photo identification at the voting booth. (Student ID cards from state universities are not included, but a concealed handgun license is.) “The voter ID law was designed to keep people of color from exercising their right to vote,” says Representative Garnet Coleman. A coalition of civil rights groups filed a petition with the Department of Justice requesting that it deny pre-clearance to the law. Texas, because of its history of Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised African-Americans is subject to scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department is currently examining the law.
Perry has also ramped up persecution of immigrants by endorsing a law to eliminate “sanctuary cities” in Texas. The law would require invite local police to question the immigration status of anyone they arrest or detain. He also signed a redistricting scheme that will reduce the number of minority and minority-influence seats in Congress, even though Texas is gaining four seats thanks to large increases in the state’s black and Latino populations.
Legislation aside, some see appeals to racism in Perry’s rhetoric. Since 2009 Perry has repeatedly invoked “states rights,” the same phrase employed by the Confederacy in the Civil War and segregationists in the twentieth-century South. Representative Coleman says this is not just Perry articulating a conservative philosophy but an appeal to older white voters with a fondness for the Jim Crow era: “Anyone over a certain age, if they hear ‘states rights’ they think segregation.”
Perry also mentioned the possibility of seceding from the Union, which might resonate with fans of the lost cause of the Confederacy. “These were not accidental words that were used,” says Coleman.
Republicans would deny that these word choices have any subtext. Of course, they would also characterize Perry’s preference for cutting billions of dollars in aid to schools over tapping the state’s rainy-day fund as a decision that is motivated by fiscal conservatism. But some African-Americans see the whole rhetoric of fiscal conservatism, going back to Ronald Reagan’s invocation of the apocryphal “welfare queen” driving a Cadillac, as being an appeal to racism.
Perry, in his capacity as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, was part of the message machine that took similar lines of attack against President Obama’s signature legislation: the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act. “The rhetoric of health care was same as Reagan’s,” says Coleman. “‘Black and Hispanic people are going to get your money. These folks aren’t personally responsible for their actions and then they need your help.’ If [Perry] wasn’t a racist he would say ‘this is wrong and I’m not going to be a party to it.”