Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is getting a lot of credit for a speech he made Thursday, in which he acknowledged that Republicans have historically touted states' rights to neglect and oppress black Americans. But while Perry's speech has a lot of nice language to chew on, his policies certainly don't reflect the same awareness.
"I know Republicans have much to do to earn the trust of African Americans. Blacks know that Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 ran against Lyndon Johnson, who was a champion for civil rights," Perry, a Republican who's running for president, said at the National Press Club, according to BuzzFeed's Evan McMorris-Santoro. "They know that Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He felt parts of it were unconstitutional. States supporting segregation in the South, they cited states' rights as a justification for keeping blacks from the voting booth and the dinner table."
Some pundits applauded Perry's comments. New York magazine's Jonathan Chait, for example, described them as an "important, historic concession." He later clarified that Perry's comments are "best judged against the backdrop of nonsense through which most conservatives view racial history."
Important, historic concession by Rick Perry to African-American voters http://t.co/FTQOkLfOHp— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) July 2, 2015
Perry's speech is best judged against the backdrop of nonsense through which most conservatives view racial history: http://t.co/xfp7ndMbuH— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) July 2, 2015
It's true that some Republicans deny the blatant racism of conservatives in the civil rights era, and it's refreshing to see Perry acknowledge those problems. But giving Perry too much credit for his comments lets him get away with saying nice things while not acting on them.
Perry changed his rhetoric, but not his policies
In the same speech, Perry used the states' right argument — which he acknowledged was employed by conservatives in the past to oppress black people — to support polices that disproportionately hurt African Americans. He said he still backs strict voter ID laws that studies show would likely stop more minority Americans from voting than their white counterparts. And he said state governments should still be allowed to decide whether to fly the Confederate Flag, a symbol of white supremacy and racist policies like slavery.
By all accounts, Perry also still supports the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder — a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a hallmark civil rights legislation — that ended up striking down a key part of the law that let the federal government oversee elections in places with a history of discrimination. The political argument against this law has always been that the federal government was limiting states' rights by controlling how they run elections. But the numbers are clear: The Voting Rights Act overwhelmingly benefited black voters, who were stopped from voting by states through poll taxes, literacy tests, and outright violence prior to the law. Yet Perry called the legislation "outdated" and "unnecessary."
To his credit, Perry restated his support for criminal justice reforms that will help wind down mass incarceration and the war on drugs, both of which have disproportionately hurt black people. But these are reforms Perry supported before his speech and as governor of Texas. They're nothing new for him.
So Perry may be changing his words — and doing so in a welcome way for those concerned about the many racial disparities in the American political and justice system. But so far he's not changing his policies to match them.