Is black racism a real problem? Or is it pure politics?
Shirley Sherrod was dismissed from her Agriculture Department job because remarks she made about her dealings with a white farmer almost a quarter century ago were perceived as racist. She was offered her job back last Wednesday because a full viewing of that speech showed it to be a tale of racial reconciliation.
But put aside the furor and confusion over the employment of the black woman who headed the USDA’s rural development office in Georgia. The Sherrod affair brings to the fore a simmering debate over whether black racism is cause for concern in America under its first black president.
During the campaign, Barack Obama was forced to address the blistering racial remarks of his former pastor. Since then, there have been complaints that Obama presides over an administration that is racial, not post-racial — when he supported a black Harvard professor who was arrested by a white police officer, or when the Justice Department dismissed most charges against a group of black militants accused of intimidating voters.
“If the Justice Department is really not interested in pursuing cases against blacks who violate whites’ civil rights and only go after whites who violate blacks’ rights, that is a major problem,” says William Stogner, a 46-year-old telecommunications technician who lives in St. Louis.
Growing up in the 1970s, Stogner was often called “cracker” by black kids in his grandparents’ East St. Louis neighborhood. Last April, while walking to his car after a Tea Party rally, he says he heard the same epithet from a group of young black men. To Stogner, black and white racism are equivalent: “To me it’s bad no matter where it originates.”
But to some conservatives, there is something special about black racism: It is invisible in the liberal media, and perpetrated by the Obama administration. While white racism is highly publicized, they say, black racism gets a pass.
“The sheer hypocrisy is maddening to me, and is a terrible, terrible double standard,” said conservative radio host Mike Gallagher.
Andrew Breitbart clearly sees black racism as an issue. He’s the conservative blogger who posted the clip from Sherrod’s 1986 speech to an NAACP meeting that set off the contretemps. He said the NAACP, in accusing the Tea Party Movement of racism, was glossing over its own bigotry.
In the video, he wrote, “Sherrod’s racist tale is received by the NAACP audience with nodding approval and murmurs of recognition and agreement. Hardly the behavior of the group now holding itself up as the supreme judge of another group’s racial tolerance.”
To Sherrod, Breitbart was just playing his own racist card: He created “a racist thing that could unite even more the racist people out there,” she told the liberal website Media Matters.
Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton’s Center for African American Studies, said some conservatives are manipulating white fears for political advantage.
“I think many white Americans are fearful that with Obama in the White House, and the diversity in his appointments, that the racial balance of power is shifting. And that’s frightening both because people always are afraid to give up privilege, and because of the prospect of a black-and-brown backlash against a very ugly history,” Perry said.
Some liberals have long maintained that racism requires power, and so black people can’t be racist. Obama’s election undercut the first argument and made the specter of black racism appear more threatening.
Of course, the black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s — “We must wage guerrilla warfare on the honky white man,” said H. Rap Brown — was plenty threatening.
Joe Hicks was a black nationalist and proudly demonized whites back then. Now a conservative Republican and vice president of Community Advocates Inc. in Los Angeles, which works to improve race relations, Hicks says today that black racism is not widespread: “The average black person doesn’t dislike white people.”
But he does believe it has become more prevalent than white racism. “Bigotry among white Americans has been driven to the margins of society. White people fear being called a racist more than anything else. But as white people have slowly moved away from viewing themselves in a racialized way, black people have maintained their sense of racial consciousness,” which sometimes leads to bias, he said.
Gallagher, the radio host, says the appearance of anti-white bias at the Agriculture or Justice Department “creates white racists.”
“White people sit around, and they get angry and they think this is the world they live in, and it’s not fair. I hear it in the frustration of my callers,” he said.
“White America understands by now, you’d better be very careful in the way you treat people of color. In this history of this country that’s great advice. That’s as it should be. We’ve had a shameful past,” he said. “Now the fear is that the pendulum has swung so far the other way, that white people mind their P’s and Q’s and don’t say anything that can be perceived as racist, but blacks can talk about hurting people.”
Perry, the Princeton professor, pointed out that blacks have 10 cents of wealth for every dollar possessed by whites.
“We can hardly say whites as a group are suffering under the weight of racial discrimination. That said, we do have to find ways of talking about race with more openness but also with greater sensitivity,” she said.
“There is a lot of work for everyone to do in this regard, and people of color are no exception.”
Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press.