First, shame on the NAACP for their inane stunt condemning "racism" in the Tea Parties. (This should be viewed with only slightly more seriousness than their last major pointless condemnation--burying the N-word.) Yeah, racists show up to Tea Party rallies. Yeah, a lot of tea partiers are pretty clueless on race issues--as are a lot of people. What the hell does that have to do with anything? It's not part of their platform. It's a convenient distraction that maligns them in order to obscure their actual message.
The Tea Parties are a decentralized group of people of divergent interests who generally oppose the president's policies. I am not a Tea Partier, I think they're misguided on a lot of issues, but I am certainly sympathetic to some of their objectives. That some of them are ignorant bigots is no surprise to me, but the vast majority of them are average folks who could probably not care less what color the president is. You get thousands of people together in any sort of group and I can find you fringe idiots with offensive signage. Does the Tea Party crowd have more than most, at least in terms of racial insensitivity? Perhaps, but it's not as if anyone can revoke someone else's membership in a national club that doesn't exist.
What the NAACP did was foolish and inflammatory. They could have, as Rachel Maddow did Wednesday night, come up with a bunch of evidence that Fox, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and so many others are intentionally race-baiting, and condemned that. But no, they went after a decentralized group of mostly white people and, effectively, called them "racists."*
Now, I know as well as anyone that no word, and I mean NO WORD, in the English language has the emotive power of "nigger." The history, the resentment, the hate, the anger that it elicits is simply and unquestionably unmatched in the context of American society. That said, I can't think of a word that puts white people on the defensive as quickly and angrily as "racist." It's a tag so vile that it hits them like a slap in the face, because they now have to defend themselves against a charge that attacks their thoughts and feelings--their very nature. How does one go about proving or disproving that? ("Some of my best friends are black," has become a mocking trope about white people dodging the accusation, with good reason.) Even if the claim is accurate, such an acerbic accusation precludes any reasonable discussion from that point on.
This is because no one thinks of himself as a racist. Not even David Duke. But when "racist" is used, Duke comes to mind. Bull Connor. George Wallace. The Klan. They're racists, to be sure. Yet, they are mostly relics of the old, explicit racism--not the implicit, institutional, or otherwise veiled racism that still pervades society. (Yes, Virginia, there is still racism all around you.) Which is where many white people, I think, get lost. They think of fire hoses and dogs; black men hanging from trees. We think of those too, but also clutched purses, hopeless job interviews and denied loan applications. We think of living through "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" nights and nigger jokes. We think of Willie Horton ads and monkey t-shirts. Those too are, or can be, evidence of racism, but of a more insidious kind.
Given all that, the preeminent organization representing black interests in America effectively called a large group of white people "racist." In response, at least one prominent member of the Tea Party reacted to the charge--with a wretched "satire" that seemed to prove the NAACP's point. I cannot and will not defend the man for his vile response, but that he reacted bitterly to a perceived attack should surprise no one. (Consequently, he and his organization, the Tea Party Express, were purged from at least one Tea Party coalition group, and rightfully so.)
Predictably, Andrew Breitbart lashed out and released a severely edited video of a speech at a NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet Dinner--oddly enough, I was awarded** a small FFBD scholarship by the IU chapter--by Ms. Shirley Sherrod, an appointed bureaucrat, recounting a time where she let her prejudices get the better of her. Even in the original release, it appeared to me that it was past tense, and her comment about it not being about it not about "black or white" issues, but rather the plight of the "poor," further cemented that she was being reflecting with remorse over her actions.
That said, I thought her use of "his own kind" to describe the lawyers to whom she took the white farmer she wronged, made her firing, if not warranted, unsurprising.
The rest of the tape was eventually released, and it turns out that my initial thoughts about her intent were correct. People then fell all over themselves to rush to her defense--some in much more reverential terms than I think were due her--and she's since been offered a new job in the Department of Agriculture.
Thus, my Google Reader was full of blogposts like the one linked above (though most were not as well-written). My Twitter feed lit up with condemnations of the Administration's actions and the NAACP's disavowal of her, then the reaction to the White House and NAACP retractions, and on and on as the story unfolded. Then the Right started in on the NAACP's audience in the video (a smattering of whom were audibly clapping at some of the more unseemly parts of her story) with more accusations of...racism.
So these are the people having the 'national conversation' on race? It would be just as productive for them to have a national conversation on astrophysics.
I went to bed Wednesday night annoyed, but mostly past the anger that had been welling up in me as I read this mindless and sickening back-and-forth. I came to work Thursday and a colleague sent me a link to a WaPo blog entry titled:
Shirley Sherrod blasts Fox News as racistGod. Damn. It.
The money quote, from the interview she gave to Media Matters:
"They were looking for the result they got yesterday," [Sherrod] said of Fox. "I am just a pawn. I was just here. They are after a bigger thing, they would love to take us back to where we were many years ago. Back to where black people were looking down, not looking white folks in the face, not being able to compete for a job out there and not be a whole person." (emphasis mine)That's right. Fox News wants to bring back Jim Crow. Now, I'm no fan of FNC, and certainly not of Glenn Beck or his ilk, but this is just absurd. Are there racists at Fox News? Yeah, probably. (I wouldn't put it past MSNBC either.) There are certainly race-baiters, as shown in the Maddow clip linked to above, but I don't think for one second that Fox is a cabal of racist neo-segregationists trying to return to the days of crippling racial separation. This is hyperbolic nonsense that just makes matters worse.
As much as I used to respect the NAACP, it has, indeed, fallen from its once-proud heights. And, certainly, I think it could still play a vital role in making our society a better place, if it were only inclined to do so. But engaging the amorphous Tea Parties by singling them out for racism was, in its own right, baiting them. That is not constructive--as we have seen over the past few days--as accusations of racism are traded back-and-forth by windbags, bloggers, the Twitterati, and government officials, all trying to make themselves look good as they crawl out of this cesspool of racial animosity.
This is not to say the NAACP should be wary of white backlash when they are standing for something important, but it shouldn't look to provoke antipathy with a symbolic political gesture tinged with loaded language either. They should be better than that. This is not "advancement."
And let it be clear, while the NAACP's proclamation was the catalyst for this, everyone involved deserves a large amount of blame: Breitbart for irresponsibly releasing an edited video out of context and writing a damning blogpost to accompany it (find it yourself, I'm not linking it here); that ridiculous Tea Party Express [idiot] who wrote the 'letter to Lincoln' in a shocking display of callow ignorance and racial insensitivity; the bloggers and Twitterers (of all political stripes) who were all over this story with self-righteous indignation as they leapt, fingers pointed, into the fray; the Administration and the Ag Department for jumping the gun and making a decision without finding out the facts, and yes, Shirley Sherrod for her poor choice of words and subsequent hyperbolic accusations against Fox News, who can and should be rebuked for so much of what they actually believe and put on the air.
It's all a disgusting mess, and we're all covered in it.
*I understand their disclaimer that they "take no issue with the Tea Party movement." Yet, given the title of their press release and separate references to unnamed racist "leaders," "elements," and "factions," the accusation was directed a broad and undefined target. The awful incidents, though their veracity has since been called into question--most famously by Andrew Breitbart's $100,000 bounty for evidence that they occurred--had already been condemned by GOP leadership and, ironically, the now disgraced Tea Party Express. Furthermore, that those incidents were perpetrated by racist "leaders" or "factions" has, to my knowledge, not even been alleged, let alone substantiated.
**In 2004, I won a $300 scholarship from the Indiana University chapter of the NAACP for an essay on overcoming adversity to get back into school. I was unable to attend the dinner because I couldn't get my shift off at work, and I never actually received the money. I followed up once, but to no avail. The honor was, and is, more important to me than the $300, despite my ongoing disappointment with the national organization.