An exploration of the physical frontiers that define race in America

Chaos at CPAC panel on reignites discussion about American spatial and racial history

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This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual event for conservative politicians and activists, features several prominent Republican speakers and discourse on touchstone political issues. Among that discourse was a panel-based event called: “Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist and You Know You’re Not One?”

The title of the event suggests that it could cover some controversial ground. But the event ultimately reached national-news-levels of controversy when one of the event’s speakers, K. Carl Smith of the Frederick Douglass Republicans, was asked a series of questions by conference-goer Scott Terry. You can see the exchange in the video above. ThinkProgress described the scene as such:

“The exchange occurred after an audience member from North Carolina, 30-year-old Scott Terry, asked whether Republicans could endorse races remaining separate but equal. After the presenter, K. Carl Smith of Frederick Douglass Republicans, answered by referencing a letter by Frederick Douglass forgiving his former master, the audience member said ‘For what? For feeding him and housing him?’ Several people in the audience cheered and applauded Terry’s outburst.

After the exchange, Terry muttered under his breath, ‘why can’t we just have segregation?’ noting the Constitution’s protections for freedom of association.”

Yikes. ThinkProgress’s coverage of the incident has been picked up by news outlets around the country, and has sparked discussion across the blogosphere. Gawker’s post on the event sparked some particularly interesting debate, in the article’s comments section, regarding the role of race and space in this incident.

Gawker identified Terry as a native of North Carolina in its article, which led many of the article’s commenters to draw a link between his geographic/spatial orientation and his views on race. That’s a very PC way of saying that people immediately assumed Terry to be a racist because he’s from the South. Comments on the article do everything from blast Terry for fitting the conservative/Southerner/racist stereotype to blame Terry’s attitudes on pro-slavery biases in Southern history classes. But there are also comments that defend Southern culture and note that racism is still alive and well across our country’s geographic span.

Obviously it is impossible to know which exact influences, whether cultural, geographic, or otherwise, would compel Terry to believe that slavery is somehow okay. But I still think this debate is fascinating because it highlights how influential geographic space is in our national conception of race. The Civil War, the North-South divide it created, and the implications of its outcome on notions of race in America have ensured that our national discussion on race will forever be linked to the geographic segments of our country.


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