Sheriff Mike Jolley of Harris County, Georgia made some waves recently by putting up an obnoxious sign:
WARNING: Harris County is politically incorrect. We say: Merry Christmas, God Bless America and In God We Trust. We salute our troops and our flag. If this offends you… LEAVE!
The sentiment is no different than that offered by Tea Partiers and religious social conservatives everywhere, but it’s definitely a bit chilling that it was erected by a man whose duty it is to represent and protect all who reside in his county.
As Hemant noted,
Nothing on it is technically illegal. But it’s the sort of “Christian cheer” that includes a subtle “fuck you” to anyone who might hold a different belief.
And that’s all that needed to be said on the subject, I thought.
But Andrew Seidel, a staff attorney at the Freedom From Religion Foundation who is also a Patheos blogger, is so perturbed that, in addressing the Harris County sign, he loses himself in some pretty heated invective.
Read the statement on the sign one more time. See anything racist about it? Me neither.
Seidel, however, claims that Jolley wants to go back to the days of Jim Crow. His headline reads:
An open letter to Sheriff Jolley: taking Harris County, GA back to Jim Crow one sign at time
That accusation seems rather over the top, and little that Seidel offers supports it. In his letter to the sheriff, he writes:
In an interview last June, you said of Harris County, “I hope we stay that way,” meaning stay the way things “were 40-50 years ago.” We can only surmise that this sign is an attempt to regain some of the division, discrimination, and hate of that bygone era because it resembles the signs that dotted Georgia’s “Sundown Towns” warning non-whites to get out of town before sunset, or else. Signs that typically read “[Racial slur], DON’T LET THE SUN SET ON YOU HERE.”
Well, let’s go back to the source, shall we? The interview that Seidel links to contains the following brief exchange:
Q: Is Harris County a throwback to the way things were 40-50 years ago?
A: I hope so. I hope we stay that way.
And that’s all that’s said on the subject. So… really? From this bland sliver, “we can only surmise” (as Seidel puts it) that the sheriff is a lover of Jim Crow laws?
Jolley (who I take no pleasure in defending) may, in fact, be the worst kind of racist, but let’s be honest: Nothing on the wretched sign, and nothing in the quoted interview, proves Seidel’s point. Nothing warrants his guns-blazing hyperbole.
Disclosure: I like the FFRF enough that the organization, along with the ACLU, is literally in my will. But that’s based on the presumption that the FFRF will be fighting the good fight — legally and morally. I expect a commitment to facts. No straw men. No stretching the observable truth into caricature.
We asked Seidel to respond, and he quickly did, with this clarification:
The point I was trying to make is not that the Sheriff is a racist (I don’t know if he is or not and don’t think the sign is racist) but that he is using his authority as chief law enforcement office to disenfranchise an unpopular minority, which was precisely what was happening during Jim Crow. There were similar signs up all over the country, not just the south that told non-whites to get out of town (to put it mildly.)
So when I write that Jolley wants to take Harris County back to those benighted times, I mean a time where ignorance and division can be used to kick minorities out of town. I am drawing a parallel between Jim Crow, when it was OK to tell people you didn’t like to leave town, and what the sheriff is doing: telling people who don’t agree with his religious and political beliefs to leave town. I think the sentiment is precisely the same, just that the rationale for identifying the minority is not skin color, but belief.
That’s a lot better, and I’ll split the difference with Seidel: because I didn’t quite get his drift, that makes me as much of an imperfect reader as it makes him a problematically ambiguous writer (at least in in this case).
Also, I don’t think that the travesty of racism should be so casually compared to the message of Jolley’s intemperate sign. I’d bet that in current rural Georgia, being a non-Christian doesn’t pose even a fraction of the heartbreak, danger, and discrimination faced by black Americans half a century or more ago.