WASHINGTON - Rusty DePass, the South Carolina Republican activist who infamously "joked" that an escaped zoo gorilla was probably an ancestor of Michelle Obama's, has learned the meaning of "hell to pay."
His teaching moment has provided multiple curricula on a range of subjects, including what appears to be racism fatigue in the Deep South.
DePass, a former chairman of the state Elections Commission, has all but performed the Stations of the Cross in apologizing for his remark the past several days. Originally made on his Facebook page in what he thought was a private exchange with a friend, the comment was picked up by a local political blogger, Will Folks (former communications director for Gov. Mark Sanford), who posted it on his Web site, FITSNews.com.
Quicker'n you can say "cheese grits," the comment went viral. And DePass - who is neither a public official nor, officially, a spokesman for the GOP - has lost his commercial real estate job and been roundly chastised in a series of public condemnations.
Thus far, he has apologized twice, including Wednesday at a news conference called by the state NAACP. Democratic members of the South Carolina House of Representatives twice tried to pass a resolution expressing regret to the first lady, but were defeated by the Republican majority. More than 400 people have joined a Facebook Group called "Rusty DePass is an insufferable piece of garbage."
Has DePass been sufficiently punished yet? Even Folks, who broke the story, says reaction has been excessive:
"What he said was over the line, but the response to it has also been over the line. There's no way someone in the private sector should get bullied out of their job for a comment like that. We have to balance respect for all races and cultures, which is an essential ingredient to the kind of society we want to be, but there has to be some semblance of proportion."
To be clear, DePass' remark (BEG ITAL)was(END ITAL) racist and there's no way to spin it otherwise, as he first tried to. Racist jokes have become commonplace since Barack Obama's election, and, sadly, they keep popping up in Republican quarters.
Last spring Folks wrote about a Republican state representative who had a flier on his desk showing blacks fleeing Obama, who was promising jobs to all African-Americans. In another recent incident, a staffer for Tennessee state Sen. Diane Black e-mailed a composite picture of all the U.S. presidents. The Obama square was solid black with two big eyes.
These fliers, jokes and antics are not isolated incidents, but are part of an ugly subterranean culture of entrenched racism. Living in South Carolina the past 20 years, I've noticed that people who say racist things never think of themselves as racist. What that means, of course, is that they'd never act on their attitudes. They might even find the N-word offensive.
But they'll make racist cracks as DePass did - or circulate fliers that portray the Obamas in demeaning ways. Seen the photo of the watermelon patch in front of the White House? Or the book on monkeys that was slipped into a display of Obama books at Barnes & Noble in Coral Gables, Fla.?
DePass is hardly alone. But he has been thrown to the lions in a sort of spontaneous cleansing ritual. After decades of shame from the state's original sin - not to mention providing a butt for the nation's jokes - South Carolinians are tired of being embarrassed.
Bud Ferillo, a public relations executive who has been spearheading an educational reform movement in South Carolina through his "Corridor of Shame" documentary, agrees that embarrassment is key to the passionate reaction to the DePass debacle. He is also hopeful that some good will come of it.
"What we're missing in our state is honest conversation between the races that ultimately leads to forgiveness. We keep putting off reconciliation from one generation to the next because our shameful history of slavery and segregation is so painful to both sides. At the same time, I think most South Carolinians are through with race-based politics."
DePass' comment to a friend, appalling as it was, clearly wasn't intended to do harm and his punishment may have exceeded the crime. At the same time, this pernicious form of passive racism has been exposed for the poison it is.
If Republicans ever want to see the Oval Office again, they'll have to purge their tent of this foul air.
Kathleen Parker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group