This is what happens when you live in a racialized house of mirrors.
A presidential hopeful, in order to defuse the specter of black anger hovering over his campaign — and, by doing so, rescuing his candidacy — is obliged to equally balance, at least morally, white American fears and resentments of black Americans with black American’s endurance of four hundred years of chattel slavery and an additional hundred years of institutional racism, terror and violence.
Liberal media promote a narrative of a post-racial America, all the while assuring us that candidate Obama was, to borrow from then Sen. Biden, an “articulate and bright and clean and a nice looking guy.”
At the same time, conservative media depict Obama as a Nazi, Communist or terrorist Muslim, hell-bent on destroying the union while exhorting the citizenry to take “our” country back.
Enter Shirley Sherrod. After a lifetime of working across racial lines in the truest spirit of our ongoing struggle for equal rights for all, she is condemned by the political right, our country’s oldest civil rights organization and a White House whose current occupancy was made possible in no small part by her efforts and the countless, anonymous efforts of those, like Sherrod’s, to hold our nation accountable to its expressed aspirations.
To be sure, what caused Ms. Sherrod’s knee-jerk dismissal is not new. It is but another chapter in a sorry book on U.S. race relations.
After the “New Yorker” cover Michelle Obama wearing fatigues and strapped with an AK-47 and images of the President with a bone in his nose, it is hard to be surprised at this latest attempt at race baiting. Still, Andrew Breibart’s mendacious depiction of Sherrod as exemplar of the “rising tides” of reverse racism, reached for and grasped, if ever briefly, a new low of race relations in our Republic.
Breitbart reaching for this new low in racial animus is not surprising. Coming from what has become of the right side of the political aisle, it is not even the most egregious. That honor belongs to Patrick J. Buchanan when he penned his little discussed toxic opinion piece — “Brief for Whitey,” on March 21, 2008, in response to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy — a piece that signaled the beginning of the race baiting to come.
In “Brief for Whitey,” Buchanan, MSNBC’s favorite right-wing elder uncle, made clear his, and we can only suppose many of our fellow citizens’ — opinions of how black Americans should view their peculiar experience on our shores.
“First,” Buchanon wrote; “America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known. Wright [read: all black folk] ought to go down on his knees and thank God he is an American.”
Would it even matter to correct Buchanan’s claim that only 600,000 Africans were brought to these shores in chattel slavery? In this political environment, probably not. Still, the thrust of Buchanan’s argument is not lost: black Americans should get down on their knees and thank God that we are Americans. What’s a little picked cotton have to do with anything? Praise the Lord and thank your lucky stars we brought you here.
It is the assumption that black Americans should be thankful for being blessed to live in the land that belongs to Buchanan, proud son of the Confederacy, which allows many of our fellow citizens to protest that they want “their” country back.
This assumption also allowed liberal media to muse incessantly about whether white Americans were ready for a black President throughout the 2008 race for the White House. And this is the same assumption that, tragically — or is it comically? — snookered so many who ought to have known better into reproving Sherrod’s life work without so much as picking up the phone to hear her side of the story.
As the attorney general recently said — and was roundly condemned for saying — we are still a nation of cowards when it comes to race. The political right’s silly, thin and ahistorical view of race and equality makes for a discourse that is as dishonest as it is disheartening. Indeed, some with only a marginal familiarity with the English language are even calling on the president to “refudiate” the NAACP’s description of certain elements in the Tea Party as racist.
To them, the term “nigger” and monkey props are not sufficient to earn that label. After all, the country belongs to them, and Tea Party members are allowed to say whatever they want to say.
Sherrod’s firing was the result of a disingenuous bargain that was struck when then-Sen. Obama became a serious contender for the presidency: You can be president of “our” country so long as you decline to give voice to any black grievance — so long as you never acknowledge the racial nightmare that makes up all but the most recent decades of our history.
Disingenuousness remains, regrettably, the state of our union when it comes to the question of race.
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. is a professor at the Harvard Law School and a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Project. Mark Jefferson is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Project.