Rick Perry’s Rock and Austin’s Own Racially Charged Past and Present
The Rick Perry story du jour is certainly a fun one for the pundits. If you were hiding under a rock, then you missed the story about a rock with a rather controversial name painted on it. The Washington Post broke the story that our governor’s West Texas hunting lease was once called “Niggerhead.” The word was painted on a rock outside the camp grounds.
Conflicting reports of how soon Perry’s family decided to paint over the word were lobbed back and forth all weekend. According to the governor, his father leased the land in 1983 and painted over the word immediately, eventually turning the rock over. But many people interviewed by the Washington Post said it wasn’t painted over that quickly. So, the talking heads debated the question: is Rick Perry racist?
“I judge folks by their character and ethics. As Governor, I represent a big, fast-growing and diverse state. My appointments and actions represent the whole state, including our growing diversity, such as appointment of the first African-American Supreme Court Justice — whom I later appointed to Chief Justice — and the first Latina Secretary of State,” Perry said to the Post.
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, one of the cable news channel’s few conservatives, has been critical of Perry and said the governor should have immediately gotten rid of the rock. The fact that it sat for so long shows enough “racial insensitivity” to be a “disqualifying” factor for Perry in the 2012 GOP primary, he said.
But, Wallace Jefferson, the first black chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court (appointed by Perry), told Emily Ramshaw of the Texas Tribune that the ranch debacle is “much ado about nothing.” Democratic State Sen. Royce West, also black, said Perry has shown sensitivity to ethnic minorities during his time as governor. Even one of Perry’s fiercest critics doesn’t buy him as a racist.
“Rick Perry is elitist, ruthlessly partisan and ideological to a fault, but racist? He appointed a black man chief justice of the state Supreme Court, for crying out loud, one of the many high-profile positions he's given to minorities during his time as governor,” said Jason Stanford on POLITICO. Stanford is co-author of the upcoming book “Adios Mofo: Why Rick Perry Will Make America Miss George W. Bush.”
“When it comes to politics, Austin's a small town just like D.C. is. There are no secrets this big. If he were an n-bomb dropping cracker, we'd all know,” he added.
The Washington Post explained how many mountains and creeks - and even soaps and chewing tobacco - were dubbed by the same name before the N-word became taboo. Civil rights groups have successfully worked toward the removal of that name, and other similar ones, on other landmarks across the country. Though sometimes, the new names aren’t a staggering improvement. What is now still referred to as “Colored Mountain” in Burnet, Texas once had the same name as Perry’s hunting camp until First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson asked the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and the U.S. Forest Service to rename it.
Even in Austin, known as the blueberry in the punch bowl, one could argue remnants of racism still exist. The mascots for William B. Travis High School (a student body with a large minority population) and Hays High School (which is in a mostly white county with a growing Hispanic population) are The Rebels. Both school bands still plays “Dixie” at games, although debates have been raging over the appropriateness of that and the mascot for years. But tradition is a significant part of Texas football, thus the song and mascots remain.
Reminders of our past aren’t just found at football games. IH-35 was once a smaller road called East Avenue dividing historically white West Austin from black and Hispanic East Austin. It took an exceptionally long time to truly desegregate the Austin Independent School District. In 1971, Austin missed out on federal funds to help desegregate AISD because the district’s plan wasn’t deemed “acceptable” by Washington. Lawsuits over the controversial busing system to whisk kids from white neighborhoods into minority neighborhoods and vice versa were still pending in the 1980s, 25 years after Brown v. Board of Education.
Even more recently, in 2010, the University of Texas had to make a decision of whether or not to keep the name of Simkins Residence Hall, named after a law professor who started his own branch of the KKK in Florida. The dorm was blandly renamed Creekside.
So, is UT President Bill Powers racist because the university only changed the dorm’s name last year? Are AISD and Hays CISD racist institutions because they’ve kept the Rebels as mascots? I don't think so. Are there racially-charged roots in the names, the song and the mascots? Absolutely. Should Perry have perhaps taken greater caution to rid the grounds of the rock, considering he’s an elected official aiming for higher office? Probably. The name is insensitive and distasteful. Perry's political views aside, jumping to the conclusion that failing to remove the rock sooner makes the governor a racist seems a stretch that even his biggest critics see right through.