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Evangelicals are outraged at A&E’s suspension of Phil Robertson, patriarch of the family in the hit show “Duck Dynasty.”  But did anyone hear what Mr. Robertson said about Black people?

Lots of posts have already been written about Phil’s opinions on human sexuality (here, here, and here to name a few).  But I wonder if Christians in the blogosphere and on social media noticed the other statements in article in GQ or just the excerpts about homosexuality. Here are Phil Robertson’s comments about a bygone and, in his opinion, better era for African Americans.

Phil On Growing Up in Pre-Civil-Rights-Era Louisiana “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

You can read the rest of the interview from GQ magazine here.

So, Blacks were happier during the Jim Crow era? Does he assume that all Blacks now are on welfare?

I’ve actually heard similar reasoning quite often.  Usually these comments come from older Whites who grew up in the South and remember it fondly.  I understand their point.  They look back on their experience of a historical moment that was mostly positive, and they want to remember it that way.  The problem in a segregated society, then and now,  is that our perceptions tend only to reflect our particular realities.  We have little exposure to the realities of others, including an awareness of their hardships.

What Phil Robertson and others get wrong is how they diagnose the state of race relations in America.  They use external cues like the frequency of a smile, and their personal exposure to overt instances of racism to judge the climate of a culture.  But what some people fail to understand is that there are unwritten rules of conduct when Blacks interact with Whites.

Listening to A Black Sharecropper’s True Feelings

My wife’s grandmother was a sharecropper in pre-Civil Rights era Louisiana, the very same time and the very same place that Phil Robertson asserts Blacks were “singing and happy.” I had a long conversation with her about the experience of sharecropping and wrote about it (Driving Miss Daisy: A Conversation about Racism, Sharecropping, and the Gospel). Her story is different from the one Mr. Robertson describes.

“Well they called it “share” cropping, but you really didn’t share anything.  You’d grow as much as you could and you’d basically give everything to the ‘Boss Man,’” she explained.

As I probed further she described how she really felt about her White bosses.

“So how did you feel about the Boss Man and White people?” “Oh, I hated them.  I really, really did.” She was frowning again, and shaking her head this time. “I was mad at what they did to us.  I had to walk eight miles to school each way.  Rain, cold, hot, whatever.  The school bus used to pass us by.  We couldn’t ride it because we were Black.  Sometimes there’d be this big ‘ol bus and only two white children riding it.  The bus would pass by close enough to splash water on us, but they wouldn’t pick us up.”

Thankfully, my grandmother’s story is one of redemption.  Her faith in Christ helped her overcome her hatred of Whites.  She now attends a predominantly White church and the dearest people in her life, the ones who were there when her husband died of cancer, are White.

Finding a Smile

But what my sharecropping grandmother knew and what most all Blacks in that day knew is that you had to comport your self in a certain way around White people.  Of course Blacks appeared content!  In a day when any hint of disrespect or dissatisfaction could get you fired, your house burned, a family member beaten, or a person killed you learned how to put on a “happy face.”  Few Black people would have risked arousing the ire of a White by expressing their true feelings at a particular situation.

Plus, even in an oppressive situation people find a way to smile.  What’s the alternative?  You can either dwell on the hardship of your situation constantly or you can acknowledge it and resolve that oppression will not steal your joy.  If Blacks in the Jim Crow era seemed cheerful, it’s because they consciously chose hope over despair.

It’s possible that Phil Robertson knew Blacks who were genuinely happy.  It’s possible that in his community there truly were exceptionally positive relationships between Blacks and Whites.  It’s possible, but not likely.  What’s probably closer to reality is that he saw Black people who knew the rules.  They knew what they could say and do around Whites who held the power.  Even if those Whites were lower-income or “white trash” as Mr. Robertson describes it.  There was still a cultural curtain separating the races.

Using Tools of Discernment

We all need to examine our tools of discernment.  What are we using as evidence for a hypothesis about a people?  Are we employing superficial and anecdotal proofs for our theories?    Or are we engaging in meaningful dialogue with those who are different from us?  Are we reading books and articles to inform our opinions?

As a Christian I believe the Good News of Jesus Christ motivates us to imitate Him.  Jesus came down from His throne in Heaven to inhabit the place of His people.  He entered into our human experience and He took on our condition in order to serve us.  Christians who clothe themselves with Christ-like humility will gain the spiritual tools necessary to compassionately read the culture of others.

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