To hear conservatives tell it, there’s a one-sided race war going on in America, and white folks are the targets. From President Obama’s secret plan to use health care reform as a way to procure backdoor “reparations” for slavery, to his equally secret plan to wreck the economy as a way to pay white people back for centuries of racial oppression, to his personal responsibility for a fight on a school bus in Belleville, Illinois, in which two black kids beat up a white kid, it’s open season on white America. And of course, in case you weren’t convinced, surely that tax on tanning bed customers that was part of the health care bill should suffice to make the case: after all, it’s a clear slap at white folks and the result of the President’s deep antipathy towards those of us lacking sufficient melanin.
Into the breach of white hysteria–heightened by Rush Limbaugh’s claim that Colin Powell only endorsed Obama as an act of racial bonding, and that the President only appoints people to high office or the Supreme Court who hate whites–now come two stories, spun for maximum effect by the right and its media mouthpieces at FOX News. To wit, the so-called scandal surrounding the Justice Department’s handling of voter intimidation charges against the New Black Panther Party (NBPP), and the recent allegation that a black official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Shirley Sherrod, admits to having mistreated a white farmer who was seeking government help, at least in part because of his race.
Since the Panther story broke, and today in the wake of the white farmer incident, I’ve been inundated by angry e-mails, demanding to know when I was going to join the fight against “black racism,” and speak out as forcefully about bigotry aimed at whites as I do about bigotry aimed at people of color. One e-mail suggested that I needed to issue an apology for previous columns I’d penned, in which I had argued that reverse racism was a myth, since people of color are generally powerless to turn their biases into concrete action that truly injures white people. Obviously, the author said, things have changed. Now a black-led Justice Department in a black-led administration does have the power to collaborate with anti-white racism, “as in the case of the Black Panthers,” and a black official in the Ag Department has the power to “deliberately mistreat” a white farmer and then brag about it.
But as it turns out, new evidence has surfaced indicating that the uproar about Shirley Sherrod has no merit. Right-wing blogger Andrew Brietbart posted edited video of a speech in which Sherrod ostensibly made fun of a white farmer and joked about not doing all she could to help him. But in fact, the rest of her story as told during the speech (which Brietbart conveniently did not post, and which FOX News has also ignored) details how she learned from her interactions with the farmer that her initial cavalier attitude about his situation was unfair, and how once she realized that, she went all out to help him save his farm. According to the family itself, she did just that, and they consider her a friend. In other words, the story was about not making assumptions on the basis of race and not discriminating. But in the hands of the right, Sherrod is a bitter racist out to hurt salt-of-the-Earth white farm folks, evidence be damned.
Likewise, the New Black Panther Party debacle is rooted in a level of intellectual mendacity that is rare even for a right-wing that has demonstrated its willingness to race-bait black folks for years without compunction.
In the case of the New Black Panther Party, the so-called intimidation of white voters by black militants led to an injunction against the leader of the Philadelphia chapter–the only one who was carrying a potential weapon, a nightstick, outside the polling place on election day, 2008. In other words, punishment was forthcoming and King Samir Shabazz, the only Panther against whom a case could have been made, has been legally held responsible for his actions. This, in spite of the fact that not one voter ever stepped forward to indicate they had been intimidated, or threatened, or blocked from voting. Even the Civil Rights Commission’s leading conservative Republican says the right-wing/FOX feeding frenzy over the story is unwarranted.
But despite the vapidity of the story, FOX has hyped it with over nine hours of breathless coverage, giving airtime to those who continue to insist that the Obama Administration “dropped the charges” against the Panthers because of a political/racial directive not to pursue cases involving white victims. This, despite the fact that it was the Bush Administration that dropped the criminal charges, and the Obama Administration that successfully got an injunction put in place against Shabazz. And again, despite the fact that not one white voter has even hinted that they were victimized. Interestingly, FOX has given spokespersons for the New Black Panthers–a small group with no significant reach or influence–continued airtime over the years, with more than 50 appearances on various of the network’s shows. In other words, the right sees the political payoff in keeping whites afraid of black anger, and has done everything they can to feed white fear, both before and after these immediate stories broke.
However, as phony as these stories happen to be, there is actually a more important point to be made regarding racism, how we do (or don’t) understand it, and how media chooses to cover it as a subject.
So let’s consider the distinction I’ve made in those previous essays–the ones that had my electronic adversary so angry–between white racial bias and institutionalized racism against people of color on the one hand, and occasional bouts of black or brown racial bias on the other. My argument has never been that folks of color can’t be philosophically racist. Nor have I said that they cannot, on occasion, practice racial discrimination against whites. What I have said (and frankly what the New Black Panther story and the Shirley Sherrod incident confirm, even if they had happened exactly as the right has spun them) is that there is a fundamental difference, in practical terms, between these various types of racism.
Racial bias on the part of black folks, even the most vicious and unhinged bigotry on their part, is pretty impotent. King Samir Shabazz hates white people and thinks “cracker babies” should be killed. And yet what kind of power does Shabazz have? None. He is in a position to kill no one, and if he were to try he would go to jail. Forever. That’s not power. Power is when you can deny people jobs, housing, health care, decent educations, or their physical freedom via the justice system, thereby wrecking their lives. And there are virtually no black folks–and certainly no black folks wearing berets, fake-ass military uniforms and carrying nightsticks–who can do any of that. But there are white folks in positions to do those things, and who do them with or without bigoted intent regularly, as I have demonstrated in previous essays and books.
Likewise, even the NBPP’s ability to intimidate white voters (in theory, since there were no such white voters in the instant case) pales in comparison to the actual denial of the right to vote to millions of black men–one in seven nationally, and as many as one in four in several states–because they are ex-felons. As law professor and scholar Michelle Alexander discusses in her brilliant new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, despite serving their time and paying their debt to society these people of color are disallowed from voting forever. Not by white thugs standing outside a polling place, but by perfectly legal actions taken by state legislatures many years ago, for blatantly racist reasons, and which the courts have said are acceptable despite their racial impact.
And even on the individual level, while the Panther leader has been legally sanctioned for his actions, and while the story about King Samir Shabazz has received non-stop coverage on FOX, the Bush Justice Department really did ignore voter intimidation allegations against the anti-immigrant Minutemen in Arizona in 2006. And that case–in which the Minutemen stood outside the polling place with loaded weapons, questioning Latino voters about their ability to speak English–received zero coverage on FOX News, despite assurances by FOX’s Megyn Kelly (the most animated of those pushing the Panther story) that the “voting place is sacrosanct.” Apparently not for Latinos, and not for the millions of black men who can no longer vote because of antiquated and racist laws. Oh, and not for the voters of color who former Supreme Court Chief Justice and conservative hero William Rehnquist intimidated at the polls during his early days as a Republican activist That is the difference between white and other racism, and it matters.
So too, even if Shirley Sherrod had been a horrible anti-white bigot in the Department of Agriculture (and interestingly the incident about which the right has made such a stink didn’t even happen when she was in that Department, but rather, nearly a quarter century ago when she worked for a non-profit agency), the fact would remain, the impact of her “bigotry” would have been small potatoes compared to the institutionalized discrimination meted out to black farmers for generations. On the basis of overwhelming evidence that black farmers were treated differently and worse than their white counterparts over the years by the USDA, those victimized by the government sought legal remedies. The first lawsuit was settled during the Clinton Administration, while a second group of farmers–cut out of the first case for technical reasons–recently procured from the Obama Administration an agreement to settle their claims for a little over $1 billion. Even the USDA’s own Commission on Small Farms has acknowledged the history of persistent and “blatant” discrimination against tens of thousands of black farmers by the agency. Yet Congress has still not released the monies due to these actual victims of racism, and seems in no hurry to do so. And the media has given the story almost no coverage, unlike the Sherrod incident, which, as it turns out, had no basis in fact to begin with.
Once again, a case of individual racism–which turned out to be phony anyway–gets the attention, while the institutionalized mistreatment of people of color goes ignored.
The pattern is familiar. In every generation whites have hyped fears of black anger, black bigotry and the supposed desire of African Americans to exact revenge on whites. From fears about slave rebellions, to claims that integration would lead black children to knife white children in the hallways and rape white girls, to paranoia about Obama’s secret plan for “white slavery,” the cult of white victimhood has long had its charter members. Sadly, nowadays the cult has the attention of the media and a white public already anxious about changing demographics, the presence of a black president and economic insecurity. Unless the targets of their race-baiting (including the President) show the courage to push back and expose them for the venal fear-pimps they are, their methods will only get more extreme, their lies more bold, and their ability to inflict lasting damage on the nation more definitive.
Tim Wise is the author of five books on race and racism. His latest is, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat From Racial Equity (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010)