This is just my take on it, based on my gut. I don’t have statements from inside the administration or any other inside information. Just gut sense, and actually, this is sort of my effort to work things out on my end, since I don’t believe Vilsack acted out of evil intent.
Fox and Breitbart set bait that triggered instinct ahead of rational and critical thought. The right loves the meme of “political correctness”, particularly when used in connection with liberals who they perceive as being intellectually dishonest. Of course, those liberals aren’t intellectually dishonest, but because they don’t fall into lockstep with conservative thought on questions of the poor, disabled, underprivileged and treatment of minorities, Republicans exploit their willingness to be open-minded as “political correctness.”
Blowing out the “racist tea party” meme
The day before it was posted, Mark Williams had been “ousted from the Tea Party Express” (whatever that really means) for posting a clearly racist “letter to Lincoln” on his website (now removed). All of this followed Williams’ contention that the NAACP is a racist organization.
Controversy swirls around the Tea Party, who is no party at all but really just the conservative wing of the mainstream Republican party. It is true, after all. There are racist elements in the Tea Party and always have been. Just go back to the Nashville Tea Party convention where Tom Tancredo made some of the most offensive remarks I can recall hearing in this day and age and the Tea Party applauded across the land.
Now it’s July, 2010, and going into the midterms, it’s important to Republicans that their conservative wing lose the ‘racist’ appearance. The NAACP’s call for them to purge their ranks of it was certainly unhelpful to the cause. This is bad. Lots of Republicans and conservatives aren’t racists, but they’re associated with them. A distraction was needed.
Breitbart knew dropping an edited video of a black government official claiming to have treated white people differently into the middle of the controversy would generate an almost knee-jerk response. And it did. Clearly it did.
It was played for maximum emotion in a high-emotion debate. Had the video been put out there when there was no discussion of racism on the right, it would have been viewed far more critically. Andrew Breitbart is a pimple on the butt of journalism, but his sense of timing has been quite devastating.
It’s no coincidence that he dropped the bogus ACORN tapes just after the town hall fiascos and before health care reform came up for a vote (and just after Al Franken was sworn in to the Senate…). The ACORN tapes were actually a bit late coming, since rumblings began back in the fall of 2008 before the general election, and came to a head during the debate over the Recovery Act when Republicans, with the assistance of Fox News, claimed that stimulus funds were going to be “funneled” to ACORN, and Darrell Issa released a report suggesting that ACORN was a criminal enterprise. Congress reacted then, too, and defunded ACORN’s tax assistance group.
The relentless targeting of ACORN ultimately spelled its demise, not because it was true, but because it might be true.
This is what Breitbart does. He unleashes lies that look “just enough true” to be cause for concern, and throws people trying to actually do something good into a tizzy over possibility.
But why, why, why do they react?
Because we haven’t really figured all of this out yet. We don’t live in a postracial world. We might have a black President, but that doesn’t mean racial bias — and white guilt over racial bias — doesn’t exist. In the Sherrod incident, Breitbart played on doubts we all harbor in one way or the other, especially in my generation.
Those of us raised in the 60s and 70s were raised in the days of busing, unrest, civil rights demonstrations, and ignorance. Now it’s 2010, and we know better. At least, many of us do. We know that black guy we elected is no radical. We knew that before he was elected! We know (or should know) that black, brown, gay and whatever else people are just as intelligent, just as creative, just as diligent, and just as diverse as the rest of us.
But we’re imperfect humans and fear is an instinctive reaction. Intellect doesn’t always overcome it. What’s known isn’t always what’s felt. When the NAACP called out the Tea Party’s racism and the response was swift with violent language (like what Mark Williams wrote), it was uncomfortable. When Breitbart produced what purported to be an act of hypocrisy in front of the NAACP by a government official, the emotional response welled up. In Vilsack’s case, there was the added pressure of managing an agency with a horrible track record on its treatment of black farmers in the South, and laboring to turn that around both in perception and reality, only to face the FEAR that it could all be undone with this one employee’s admission that ‘she didn’t work as hard for whites as she did for blacks.’
Fear and doubt. Tools of authoritarians and bullies. Play on the fears, play on the doubts, magnify it via a frontal assault on the internet, the news media and every right wing blog willing to take it on, and pretty soon it overwhelms reason and threatens everything good one is trying to do.
It was true of ACORN. It was true of Shirley Sherrod’s speech. I believe the Van Jones issue is more nuanced and has other factors so I exclude that one. But in these two instances, what appeared to be real-time documented evidence raised enough fear and archetypal reactions that caution and reason were overwhelmed.
Any lessons to learn?
Here’s mine, for what they’re worth.
Lesson #1: Repeat after me: Breitbart is a liar. Breitbart is a liar. Breitbart is a liar. He uses video and audio selectively to paint his version of an event. Count on this: If it came from Breitbart, it’s been edited and no longer accurately reflects reality.
Lesson #2: Know who the real villains are. They’re not black people and they’re not Vilsack and they’re not the President or the Administration. The real villains are Breitbart, Fox News, and the Minion Riders who trail along to magnify the message.
Lesson #3: Know myself. Isn’t it time to admit unspoken fears about the possibility ‘they’re’ right? Saying it out loud gives it the weight it deserves: absolutely none. OF COURSE they’re not right. But the only way to end doubt was for me to admit I had some. I spent too long wanting to believe that racial tension is a thing of the past. It’s not. It’s rooted in old ways, but it’s not gone. Not admitting it just buries it. Yes, there IS still tension. Can’t get past it until it’s out there, though.
Lesson #4: Be on guard. In the past 2 weeks, the right has stirred up the race issue directly in response to the left, raising the Reverend Wright specter again, the “we’re not racist by writing racist screeds” strategy, and their utterly unfounded accusations that the President is radical, racist (Glenn Beck’s favorite), and scary. The immigration issue in Arizona has stirred it up more. In that environment, expect an ambush.
This is what President Obama was saying in his speech in Philadelphia. What he said then is still true today:
The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.
And yes, in that same speech, the candidate Obama admitted that there is anger in the black community still, over past injustices.
Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.
This is all true, and he also acknowledged the flip side:
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
It is that resentment that crawled out. Maybe only a little bit of resentment lingered, but it created doubt, and that doubt gave rise to permission to believe the worst of Shirley Sherrod.
It is that doubt and that resentment that isn’t overcome yet. All Breitbart and his friends did was play it in order to run interference for the very real, very visceral, and malevolent factions that inhabit their sphere.
In the end, it was really all about “they do it too”, the possibility he might be right, and lingering doubt about where we stand in relationship to each other’s race.
Next time, I hope we do better. There will be a next time, and a time after that, and one following that one until finally, it just doesn’t work anymore.