Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Shirley Sherrod, Journolist, the NAACP, and the Tea Party

by Latoya Peterson

Kill the phony mean before it kills you. That the truth is probably somewhere in the middle… that if both sides think you are biased against them it probably means you’re playing it straight… that the extremes on both sides are equally extreme, deluded and irresponsible— these practices have rotted out, and the sooner they are done away with, the better footing political journalism will be on. Just as it should be routine for reporters to ask themselves, “am I showing undue favoritism here, am I slanting my account?” it should be routine to ask, “am I creating a false symmetry here, am I positing a phony mean?”

Jay Rosen

This is mayhem and foolishness!
Niecy Nash

So let me get this straight.

Joe Biden will go on record saying that both he and Barack Obama do not believe the Tea Party is a racist organization.

However, the Obama Administration will not go to bat for Shirley Sherrod, who shared a story about overcoming racial bias, which was manipulated into a false charge of racism.

The NAACP straight up condemned Sherrod (who was speaking at one of their events!) before all the facts were on the table, leading to a semi-apology from the organization. Which means that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was first at bat for white folks unjustly smited by years of black oppression.

Meanwhile, the NAACP was already on the offensive since it had lobbed bombs at the Tea Party, alleging it was a racist organization.

The Tea Party and various conservative outlets responded with an “I know you are but what am I” play, complete with “playing race card” reference.

Then, some fool named Mark Williams thought that was his cue, so he decided to let his racist flag fly with every anti-black stereotype in the book, pretending he was “satirizing” the NAACP.

The Tea Party Federation responded by removing Williams from his post, but other members of the Tea Party Express continue to allege that the NAACP are the “real racists”.

And amid all of this, more emails were published from the now-defunct journolist, advocating charging Republicans with racism as a political strategy to deflect from the attention given to Jeremiah Wright during one segment of the 2008 Presidential Campaign.

Where do we even start?

While I would have loved to give each of these topics their own, thorough discussion, time is just not permitting for us to do so. Arturo is on the way to Comic Con; I’m knee-deep in three major assignments. However, briefly, I did want to at least broach some of these major issues.

On Shirley Sherrod

Ta-Nehisi, in his comments section, summarizes exactly how I feel in three short paragraphs:

In the video Sherrod talks about her family and friends were repeatedly victimized by racial violence and how she carried that into her career to the point of almost not helping a white farmer in trouble. But when she saw the white farmer was being ripped off by a white lawyer, who she’d referred him to, she saw that it wasn’t about black v. white but rich v. poor. She ultimately was able to save the guy’s farm.

Now. You can quibble with that analysis. What you can not say is that this is evidence of racism, and the Obama administration’s willingness to bow before that claim–within days of defending the Tea Party against charges of racism–is, to me, sickening. Its utter cowardice. Complete cowardice.

The White House claims it wasn’t their doing. Fine. Apologize and give her a job back. Man the fuck up.

But I’ll make another point in three words: Free Eric Holder!

Seriously, what the hell is this steaming pile of racial injustice? The administration is trying to put it all on the director of Agriculture, but has not yet made a statement about their feelings on the situation, letting the silence speak volumes.

And don’t get me started on the NAACP right now. For real y’all? Did we really just throw a black woman under the bus? Is this a part of this new strategy change? Clearly, it’s time to start pushing back on some of these PR emails I received.

On the Tea Party

The Tea Party may not be an inherently racist organization, but they sure are quick to look the other way when some racist shit happens. Feigning innocence is not the way to go, particularly not in organizations that value diversity. Having black participants in the tea party does not absolve the entire group from racist actions. Also, the definition of racism appears to be way off. Sarah Palin wrote on her facebook page:

His words rang especially true in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 presidential election. It seemed that with the election of our first black president, our country had become a new “post-racial” society. As one writer in the Washington Post stated: “[Barack Obama’s] election isn’t just about a black president. It’s about a new America. The days of confrontational identity politics have come to an end.” [...]

The only purpose of such an unfair accusation of racism is to dissuade good Americans from joining the Tea Party movement or listening to the common sense message of Tea Party Americans who simply want government to abide by our Constitution, live within its means, and not borrow and spend away our children’s futures. Red and yellow, black and white, this message is precious in all our sights. All decent Americans abhor racism. No one wants to be associated with any organization that is in any way racist in sentiment or origin. I certainly don’t want to be. Thankfully, the Tea Party movement is not racist or motivated by racism. It is motivated by love of country and all that is good and honest about our proud and diverse nation.

Like President Reagan, Tea Party Americans believe that “the glory of this land has been its capacity for transcending the moral evils of our past.” Isn’t it time we put aside the divisive politics of the past once and for all and celebrate the fact that neither race nor gender is any longer a barrier to achieving success in America – even in achieving the highest office in the land?

I just spent a few beautiful Alaskan days with some beautiful Americans in my husband’s birthplace – they are Todd’s family and they are Yupik Eskimo. In the decades that our families have blended, I have never heard one proud, patriotic member judge another member based on skin color. Both Todd and I were raised to measure a person according to their capacity and willingness to love, work, forgive, contribute, and show good character. We’re joined by the vast majority of Americans in this belief whereby we measure a man by his character, not his color. Because of amazing efforts and accomplishments by those who came before my generation, it is foreign to us to consider condemning or condoning anyone’s actions based on race or gender. Being with our diverse family in a melting pot that is a Native village just days ago reminded me of that.

So to leave that remote village and return back to “modern civilization” only to hear of the NAACP’s resolution today suggesting that we Tea Party Americans don’t respect equality makes me sad for those who choose to divide these great United States. It is time to end the divisive politics.

If only people who took the time to learn all the proper words to sound like they were interested in combating racism were actually interested in solving the problem rather than avoiding blame…

On Journolist

This one doesn’t seem like it fits with the other, more overt examples, but it is important to highlight how conversations about race and framed and presented. I’ve been frustrated for a while about how the media handles race related issues. Basically, all the articles and TV segments are a variation on: is this racist? check yes or no…

However, it really, really sucks to see people who are supposedly on your team defending or upholding that stance.

I’ve been lightly following the fall out from Journalist and the ensuing drama around the nature of such a list and if it amounts to a liberal conspiracy. After checking the latest installment on the Daily Caller, this section in particular is getting under my skin (indent added for clarity):

Ackerman went on:

    I do not endorse a Popular Front, nor do I think you need to. It’s not necessary to jump to Wright-qua-Wright’s defense. What is necessary is to raise the cost on the right of going after the left. In other words, find a rightwinger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.

    And I think this threads the needle. If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they’ve put upon us. Instead, take one of them — Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists. Ask: why do they have such a deep-seated problem with a black politician who unites the country? What lurks behind those problems? This makes *them* sputter with rage, which in turn leads to overreaction and self-destruction.

Ackerman did allow there were some Republicans who weren’t racists. “We’ll know who doesn’t deserve this treatment — Ross Douthat, for instance — but the others need to get it.” He also said he had begun to implement his plan. “I previewed it a bit on my blog last week after Commentary wildly distorted a comment Joe Cirincione made to make him appear like (what else) an antisemite. So I said: why is it that so many on the right have such a problem with the first viable prospective African-American president?”

Several members of the list disagreed with Ackerman – but only on strategic grounds.

“Spencer, you’re wrong,” wrote Mark Schmitt, now an editor at the American Prospect. “Calling Fred Barnes a racist doesn’t further the argument, and not just because Juan Williams is his new black friend, but because that makes it all about character. The goal is to get to the point where you can contrast some _thing_ — Obama’s substantive agenda — with this crap.”

(In an interview Monday, Schmitt declined to say whether he thought Ackerman’s plan was wrong. “That is not a question I’m going to answer,” he said.)

Kevin Drum, then of Washington Monthly, also disagreed with Ackerman’s strategy. “I think it’s worth keeping in mind that Obama is trying (or says he’s trying) to run a campaign that avoids precisely the kind of thing Spencer is talking about, and turning this into a gutter brawl would probably hurt the Obama brand pretty strongly. After all, why vote for him if it turns out he’s not going change the way politics works?”

Now, the Daily Caller is willing to publish a lot of “we aren’t racist, y’all are the real racists!” madness, so they aren’t a great source for any kind of serious racial analysis. But what troubles me is the actual content of the emails – that racism, and charges of racism, can be used as a powerplay to reframe the conversation, and is not an actual conversation in its own right.

Worse, this comes from Spencer Ackerman, someone I actually like, and think he generally gets the main concepts when we talk about race in society.

(I could be biased, however – we did munch on testicles together, along with Megan, Kay, and Ann.)

But I couldn’t help reading that passage and feeling somewhat smacked in the face.

The whole charge of “playing the race card” drives me up a wall because it is normally used to stop conversations about racism, and it implies that people of color view racism as some kind of trump card to whip out. I’m always amazed when people act like being a person of color is like the ultimate get over, that I can throw down the racial big joker (after all, aren’t we playing spades?) and doors magically fly open due to me being black AND female.

Racism is not a game.

And it just gets under my skin when a group of journalists – white journalists at that*, particularly if journolist mirrored the composition of newsrooms – can get together and decide that calling someone racist would make them sputtering and defensive, and that’s the end of it. No larger mission of exposing how racism intersects with American political life, it’s all about Brand Obama and what tools are in the arsenal.

Now, a lot of the Wright coverage was sadly lacking racial analysis. There was much discussion about “reverse racism” and hate speech from Wright, but far less conversation about why Wright’s comments resonated with people. I always think about this one moment of realness:

HUCKABEE: I don’t think we know. If this were October, I think it would have a dramatic impact. But it’s not October. It’s March. And I don’t believe that by the time we get to October this is going to be the defining issue of the campaign and the reason that people vote.

And one other thing I think we’ve got to remember: As easy as it is for those of us who are white to look back and say, “That’s a terrible statement,” I grew up in a very segregated South, and I think that you have to cut some slack. And I’m going to be probably the only conservative in America who’s going to say something like this, but I’m just telling you: We’ve got to cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told, “You have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can’t sit out there with everyone else. There’s a separate waiting room in the doctor’s office. Here’s where you sit on the bus.” And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had a more, more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.

JOE SCARBOROUGH: It’s the Atticus Finch line about walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes. I remember when Ronald Reagan got shot in 1981. There were some black students in my school that started applauding and said they hoped that he died. And you just sat there and of course you were angry at first, and then you walked out and started scratching your head, going, “Boy, there is some deep resentment there.”

I wasn’t surprised that there was relatively little discussion in the mainstream media of Huckabee’s comments, or an analysis of or Wright’s statements in historical context to help parse out the facts from exaggeration and motivations from malicious intent. But it is interesting to see what kind of stories are advanced, and become part of the news narrative, and which ones are quickly swallowed in the cycle. I know we generally lean way liberal on this site, and I can see the context for Spencer’s statements and what he was trying to accomplish, but damn. No wonder race is covered the way it is in the media – there is far too much political maneuvering, and not enough understanding of the basic issues.

*Ta-Nehisi Coates has copped to being a member of Journolist, and the Nation’s Richard Kim is included in some of the other referenced conversations. However, none of those people were quoted commenting on using racism to defuse the Wright situation. That could be Daily Caller editing; not many people have access to the full archive, since it was a closed list.

Edited To Add: When I first read Palin’s missive, this part:

I just spent a few beautiful Alaskan days with some beautiful Americans in my husband’s birthplace – they are Todd’s family and they are Yupik Eskimo. In the decades that our families have blended, I have never heard one proud, patriotic member judge another member based on skin color. Both Todd and I were raised to measure a person according to their capacity and willingness to love, work, forgive, contribute, and show good character. We’re joined by the vast majority of Americans in this belief whereby we measure a man by his character, not his color. Because of amazing efforts and accomplishments by those who came before my generation, it is foreign to us to consider condemning or condoning anyone’s actions based on race or gender. Being with our diverse family in a melting pot that is a Native village just days ago reminded me of that.

Made me want to break out a bingo card. If someone wants to whip one up, special to Palin, I’d be happy to post it.