On July 2nd, giving a speech in DC, Rick Perry offered some blunt criticism of how Republicans have approached issues related to race, and called on his party to do better. The immediate reaction was subdued, though, and today I learned why: because the speech immediately preceded a holiday weekend. Today, there were a number of glowing reviews flying around the media water cooler, such as this editorial from the Wall Street Journal (which also printed excerpts from his comments). A number of outlets that are historically less quick to commend former Republican governors of Texas–Time, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, etc etc—also had nice things to say.

Some of the reviewers were clearly surprised, and I found that interesting, for reasons I’ll get to in a second. First, though, here’s a link to the speech for readers who are curious. Perry’s stated topic was the economy, and economic opportunity is my favorite issue for presidential candidates to emphasize, so although I thought it was a great speech too, I would think that. His remarks on race, at the beginning of the speech, included a great point about the Fourteenth Amendment, but his overarching point struck me as straightforward and uncontroversial. He isn’t getting any backlash from conservatives, as far as I can tell, and I don’t see why he would.

So I only have two things to add here. The first is a PSA for Perry’s critics: If you’re genuinely surprised by the possibility that Rick Perry may not be a virulent racist hatemonger, you should check his record. And then you should check your own biases, because you’ve obviously been making unwarranted assumptions about someone who seems to fit your stereotypes. Ya burnt!

The other is a more general comment. Perry has noted before that African-Americans living in Texas see experience better outcomes in terms of employment and education than African-Americans nationwide. Barely two weeks ago, for example, he got a lot of criticism for referring to the mass shooting in Charleston as an “accident”; if you watch the video it’s clear that he meant “incident”, but more to the point, he goes on to talk about economic and educational opportunity for everyone, including African-Americans.

People may dispute the sincerity of his concern. The metrics support his point, but don’t explain why Texas’s outcomes are better—and as governor, Perry rarely talked about issues in terms of race unless race was clearly part of the issue (as when he signed the hate-crimes bill). At the same time, Perry signed a lot of good legislation that has helped mitigated some of Texas’s historic disparities in straightforward ways; the criminal justice reforms he advocated, for example, helped lessen overincarceration. 

In other words, although Perry eschews identity politics, he did improve equity in Texas, even if he didn’t think about it in those terms or intend to do so. The same is true of many of Texas conservatives, and the metrics show that Texas actually has become more equitable, in various ways, during this period of Republican hegemony.

Counterinituitive, perhaps, but it makes sense the more I think about it. In some cases, differential outcomes based on race (or gender, or so on) are actually caused by race (etc). In a lot of cases, though, the real culprit is one or several of the many economic, sociological, or historical factors correlated with race or gender. If so, policymakers focused on the demographic trait would naturally be off on a wild goose chase. Meanwhile, the ones who ignore identity politics are free to think about criminal justice reform or improving access to higher education or whatnot. It’s fair to debate whether our leaders should focus more explicitly on Texas’s various disadvantaged groups. But Perry et al have given us examples of an intriguing possibility: that sometimes, at least, we can promote equity by ignoring it. 

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)