It goes without saying that Andrew Breitbart did not viciously smear Shirley Sherrod because of her all-powerful role as a mid-level appointee in the US Department of Agriculture. This invented controversy isn’t about farming, and it’s not even about taking shots at the NAACP, which recently called out the Tea Party’s racism before rushing to repudiate Sherrod—only to later admit that they’d been "snookered." At the end of the day, the fiasco is not even really about Obama.
Sure, in the Tea Party universe the caricature of "Shirley Sherrod, Racist" stands in for the quasi–Black Panther, secretly-communist president. She’s Obama’s willing bureaucrat, an ordinary black civil servant who uses an arm of the mighty federal leviathan to discriminate against white farmers and to redistribute taxpayer wealth to fellow blacks. She then has the gall to brag about it in front of a black audience, who hoot in approval, on camera. Like the mythical recording of Michelle Obama railing against "whitey," the Sherrod video is a hoax, two minutes and thirty-six seconds of sliced and diced footage that should be totally implausible to anyone who thought about it for a cool moment. But for the Tea Party crowd, it proved irresistible. "She too perfectly personifies the bureaucracy staffing the federal behemoth not to have a brilliant future in ‘government service’ ahead of her," wrote one Tea Party blogger. "Next stop, Zimbabwe," concluded another.
In a way, we should be grateful to Breitbart. His hack job provided us with a perfect visual condensation of the racial paranoia that has animated the Tea Party since its inception. It’s the logic behind the equally fabricated Breitbart smear against ACORN; it’s what drives Glenn Beck to say that healthcare reform amounts to the "beginning of reparations" and what Rush Limbaugh signals when he accuses Obama of inflicting economic pain as a form of "payback." And it’s the sentiment found in polls of Tea Party activists, 52 percent of whom say that "too much has been made of the problems facing black people."
But this story is older than the Tea Party, older than the current drove of right-wing demagogues. It’s the story that has been told to white middle- and working-class voters by the right since the Reagan administration in order to explain their dwindling paychecks and prospects: racism is over; it is minorities who now have too much power; they are stealing your jobs, your future. And with that insidious whisper (now a shout), the specter of reverse racism chases away the all-too-real and yet all-too-abstract forces of neoliberal economic policy. Who can focus on the workings of contemporary global capitalism when the Zimbabwe-fication of America is nigh! Obama, of course, crystalizes this narrative, giving it agency, power, motive, a face to deface. But it existed before him too; it litters, for example, civil rights case law since the ’70s, in Bakke v. Regents, in Gratz v. Bollinger and in Ricci v. DeStefano, the New Haven affirmative action case that got Sonia Sotomayor into so much hot water with the right.
That the base of Tea Party activists eagerly believed the Sherrod hoax is not surprising. What is upsetting is that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack fell for it too, so much so that he was willing to trust Andrew Breitbart’s account (!) even before he heard Shirley Sherrod’s side of the story or initiated even the most cursory of reviews. Perhaps more disturbing still is that the NAACP itself readily accepted that a lifelong civil rights activist had confessed to racial discrimination in a public speech in front of an approving audience of its own members, an incident that went entirely unreported until Breitbart exposed it.
These are worrying signs—not just of the reflexive credibility given to video (does nobody understand that practice of editing?) and of the power of right-wing media—but also of just how entrenched the myth of pervasive reverse racism is. We live in an era where the dominant paradigm for understanding race is colorblind racism, the ideology that racism is evidenced only by individual acts of speech and prejudice, which anyone of any color is equally likely to commit.