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Faux-pression: Racism and the Cult of White Victimhood

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)

8 Comment count
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Not to Mention...

That all those people calling you out for not addressing the new crisis of black racism are exposing themselves as the hypocrites they are. Since they weren't doing a damn thing about the white racism you were talking about earlier.

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Well Said

Thank you for posting this very pertinent commentary. Fear, indeed, drives the hatred and bullying promoted by the barking dogs on FOX and its ilk. Mr. Obama has so much to contend with and represents so much to so many people by virtue of his skin color. Insidious belief that only his black half matters in any of this is what makes me laugh. I wish him continued courage and fortitude; I have no doubt he needs great vats of it to continue his job in the face of so much contention and ugliness in the conservative camp.

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Yep, there's good 5 or 6

Yep, there's good 5 or 6 people who believe this, below, so sure, why not indict the entirety of conservatives for it?

>>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.<<

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If the rest of you conservatives don't believe it, why aren't you calling Beck and his ilk out for it? No, plenty of people say these things, plenty of people believe them or at least don't find them repellent enough to do anything about it.

In fact, you YOURSELF went this way, Brian! Your response JUST a few days ago echoed virtually all of these arguments! I was wondering how you'd dishonestly try to cover your tracks this time.

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I wonder that you are still speaking, Signor Benedick ...

Just in case you haven't been paying attention, Brian (and, unfortunately for you, some of us have been), Tim has nailed it perfectly.  With references.

Something you have been unable to do, I've noticed.

So, Brian, where are the people of color at your Tea Party rallies?  Why are there so many racist signs being held and waved at your Tea Parties?  Where was your outrage about big government *before* there was a black man in the White House.


That's about what I thought.

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Principalities and Powers

Liberation theologian Ched Myers writes:

"We are in Denial about our present. Ours is perhaps the most indebted, stratified, and violent society in the world today. As the U.S. empire, unrivaled in its global reach and military strength, has come to full flower in the second half of the twentieth century, our duplicity has become increasingly evident. Evident, that is, to those viewing the world from the killing fields of Guatemala or Mozambique or East Timor, or from the housing projects of south Los Angeles ganglands or the refugee trails through Sonora borderlands or the health clinics in Lakota badlands. It is not evident, however, to those of us who by reason of race, class, and/or gender are inheritors of the imperial system. And it is certainly not evident in our official narratives about ourselves... And yet any suggestions of imperial hubris are ruthlessly dismissed in our public discourse. Has any people ever been as convinced of its own benevolence and innocence?" (Who Will Roll Away the Stone?, p. 7-8, Orbis Books 1994)

As an educated, white, middle class, heterosexual American male, every power paradigm resulting in oppression and marginalization directly benefits me. I want to learn how to reject all of that, but my God is it hard. I'm ready to march with the New Black Panthers, but I think they'd find my motivations suspect. And probably, rightly so. White guilt informs a lot of my worldview. But I don't intend to end there: the process of deconstruction can result in constructive outcomes. For me, advocacy and education are just a starting point.

Ched Myers goes on to ask: "Will our generation face Denial and struggle to bring the imperial Zeitgeist to an end, or will we join the imperial celebration of a new beginning to a very old world order?" (p. 10) Many have already chosen, and many have chosen without choosing... the principalities and powers of oppression are nothing new. New generations redefine, re-justify, and re- celebrate, again and again.

Can we subvert the cycle?

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Paraphrasing Paulo

As Paulo Freire said, when the oppressed feel that their positions as oppressors are threatened, they begin to feel oppressed. What these people are experiencing is not oppression, but the (possible) diminishment of their racial supremacy.

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The Sherrod story reveals

The Sherrod story reveals that a lot of people would rather react out of their deeply-held prejudices and hatred than to take a moment to, well...think. The story of her 'prejudice' was plastered all over the media until bloggers, who took the time to (imagine!) actually view the entire video clip, realized what Sherrod was actually saying.

If you're a white person who resists racism in our white-dominated culture, other white people will accuse you of having 'white liberal guilt'--But why are some of us so trigger-quick to lash out and deny that we benefit from certain privileges because of our skin color? Hey, looks like there might be some...guilt behind that?

The agonized history of race in this country belongs to all of us. Sure, no one living today took part in slavery, and all of us look back and declare it was wrong. But like it or not, we are still living out slavery's ramifications, not to mention the ongoing after-effects of Jim Crow, discrimination, mistrust, and, yes, guilt. The reality is, our history colors us no matter how much we protest its irrelevance.