After months of Glenn Beck denouncing healthcare reform as "the beginning of reparations" and Rush Limbaugh accusing Obama of inflicting economic pain as a form of "payback," it is not a bit surprising that Tea Party activists found Andrew Breitbart’s vilification of USDA employee Shirley Sherrod irresistible. In their universe the caricature of "Shirley Sherrod, Racist" perfectly symbolizes the quasi–Black Panther, secretly communist president. She’s Obama’s willing bureaucrat, an ordinary black civil servant who uses the mighty federal leviathan to discriminate against white farmers and to redistribute taxpayer wealth to fellow blacks. As one Tea Party blogger succinctly put it, "Next stop, Zimbabwe."
What is upsetting is that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack fell for the hoax too, so hard that he was willing to trust Breitbart’s account (!) before he heard Sherrod’s side of the story or initiated even the most cursory of reviews. Perhaps more disturbing yet is that the NAACP—which recently called out the Tea Party’s racism before rushing to repudiate Sherrod, only to later admit that it had been "snookered"—initially accepted the right-wing story line.
These are worrying signs not just of the reflexive credibility given to video and of the power of right-wing media but also of just how entrenched the myth of pervasive reverse racism is. Far older than the Tea Party, this fable has been told to white middle- and working-class voters since the Reagan administration 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. It’s a bit of cognitive razzle-dazzle. Who can focus on the machinations of neoliberal economics when the Zimbabwe-fication of America is nigh! Obama, of course, crystallizes this narrative, giving it power, motive, a face to deface. But it also litters, for example, the backlash to civil rights 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.
This is the era of colorblind racism, the belief that racism is evidenced only by individual acts of speech and prejudice, which anyone of any color is equally likely to commit. It’s this logic that the NAACP acceded to when it phrased its rebuke of the Tea Party’s racism as a function of "bigoted elements" and "signs and speeches." It is also what the Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart affirmed in his postmortem on the Sherrod saga, in which he suggested that Obama and the NAACP should abandon race-based affirmative action in favor of class-based affirmative action because "race isn’t as central to American inequality as it once was." Ditto for Democratic Senator Jim Webb, who took the occasion to lament the fact that "WASP elites have fallen by the wayside" and call for an end to affirmative action programs because when "Procrustean policies" are abandoned, "fairness will happen, and bitterness will fade away."
Notice here—in kinder, gentler form—the same zero-sum politics that governs the right-wing backlash to the civil rights movement: minorities’ gains come at the expense of working-class whites, and both will have to battle it out for their ever shrinking slice of the pie. It’s class or race—never both.
Had anyone bothered to listen to Sherrod’s whole speech before denouncing her, they would have come away with quite a different lesson. Yes, she talks about how she learned to overcome her wariness about helping a white farmer and her realization that "the struggle is really about poor people"—but there is never any suggestion that she views racial and economic justice as mutually exclusive. In fact, she points out that of the 129 employees in her USDA division, Rural Development, fewer than twenty are people of color. Had anyone bothered to look at EEOC data, they would have seen that although minorities make up only a third of federal employees, they file 77 percent of racial discrimination complaints; a minority is almost seven times more likely to report an incident of racial discrimination than a white federal employee. Or note the impact of rampant deregulation: as a recent Institute on Assets and Social Policy study points out, poor whites have experienced economic stagnation in the past quarter-century; their net wealth went from zero to $100. But in the same period, the poorest blacks experienced not just stagnation but decline, going from -$2,000 in wealth to -$3,600.
Neither the Obama administration nor the NAACP noted these or similar statistics in response to the smearing of Shirley Sherrod. It’s as if we want to put this whole "thing" behind us, to blame it all on the conservative boogeymen, to focus on class-based remedies or to transcend race altogether—remember Andrew Sullivan’s hope that Obama’s election would say "Goodbye to All That"? But black man in White House aside, we still don’t want to have an honest discussion about race and class together. But this only gives oxygen to the Breitbarts of the world—those who would use race as a wedge to split white working-class and minority voters. And perhaps that’s the ultimate takeaway of the Sherrod story: our silence will not protect us.