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June 28, 2013 1:43 PM Concerning “Crackers”

By Ed Kilgore

The alleged use of the term “Cracker” (or more specifically, “creepy ass cracker”) by Trayvon Martin to describe the man who was stalking him and eventually shot him to death has become a big issue in public discussion of the ongoing trial of George Zimmerman. As Salon’s Joan Walsh notes, it’s prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel’s claim that the term is pretty common in her part of the world that’s really got Zimmerman’s supporters around the country worked up:

From Glenn Beck’s the Blaze to the Breitbots to smaller right-wing shriekers to Twitter trolls everywhere, white grievance-mongers seemed less bothered by the fact that Martin allegedly used the term, than by Jeantel saying it wasn’t a slur.
For the record: I have been known to say “Jesus Christ on a cracker,” and I want to make clear I am not praying for the Son of God to jump a white person.
My God, don’t these people get tired of themselves? So much of the trumped-up racial upset on the right, generally, is about language: If black people can use the N-word, why can’t we? (Even Paula Deen tried to use that as self-defense at first.) Now we’re moving on to: If the N-word is racist and forbidden, words like “cracker” should be, too.

As a frequently self-identified Cracker (or Crackro-American, as Roy Blount, Jr., an adopted Georgian, called it in his 1980 book about Jimmy Carter’s meaning to the home folk, entitled Crackers), I guess I need to weigh in on this and register that yes, “Cracker” has a different meaning in Georgia and parts of Florida than it apparently has elsewhere. I remember the term “Georgia cracker” as a value-neutral term from the earliest days of childhood. Atlanta’s beloved minor-league baseball team (before the Braves arrived) was the Atlanta Crackers. Since Georgia politics and culture were mostly segregated in those days, the term was attached to white folks, and perhaps more to po’ white folks, in contrast to the snooty Gone With the Windcultural legacy of the planters.

Mediate’s Tommy Christopher confirms that history of “Cracker” for Florida, and also observes:

A whole mess of white people like to get worked up about the word “cracker,” some in the mistaken belief that this will somehow result in permission to use the n-word.

So whether you perceive “Cracker” as derogatory or not kinda misses the larger point: it’s not equivalent, because the experience of black and white southerners has not been equivalent.

The truth is, us “Crackers” (to the extent we are talking about poorer people from the Deep South) did suffer a lot from slavery, the Cult of the Confederacy, and Jim Crow. Southern racism distorted the economy and culture, led to a horrifically destructive war, and plunged the whole region into a century of grinding poverty and subjugation to the rich and powerful, which persists to a distressing degree today. But just as my own grandfather, a steelworker and farmer and most definitely a Cracker, used to always boast he was “better” than any black man who had ever lived, the black and white southern experiences were never the same by any stretch of the imagination.

So no, even outside Georgia and Florida, the impact of calling someone a “Cracker” isn’t remotely the same as using the n-word, and all in all, this furor looks like just another effort to define racism right out of existence. Or so it looks to this old Cracker.

UPDATE: Here’s Randy Newman singing about the Crackers of Looziana and their great champion.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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