Amid the endless oil spill, endless war, and endless unemployment crisis, the past summer brought us the more punctual and considerably more imaginary Shirley Sherrod affair, in which a black Department of Agriculture official was accused of discriminating against white farmers in Georgia. The accusation was made on the basis of a distorted edit of a speech Sherrod gave to the NAACP back in March. In her speech, Sherrod spoke of struggling to overcome her reluctance to help the same kind of people who had murdered her father during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. A classic piece of the Christian forgive-your-enemies rhetoric of the civil rights movement, Sherrod’s talk was misleadingly cut and pasted onto YouTube by the blogger Andrew Breitbart, in such a way as to imply unrepentant “reverse racism.” The clip received wide airplay on Fox News and was then picked up by less partisan news organizations, leading Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to order Sherrod’s resignation. Some days later, the record was set straight after left-wing bloggers circulated the full speech, and the same white farmer Sherrod had apparently discriminated against, if only in thought, came forward to say how much she’d done for him in deed.
In spite of Sherrod’s vindication, the affair was another political triumph for the right. The White House went no further than to blame the fake scandal on technology and the 24-hour news environment, probably because polls show that distrust of the media is bipartisan. The actual content of the fake scandal, unlike its form, could hardly be discussed by respectable parties. We all know that racism has been sufficiently anathematized in America that it can no longer present itself directly, perhaps no longer even to the minds of those who engage in it. A paradoxical consequence of this apparent progress is that only in extreme cases can racism be referred to publicly by people in a position to condemn it. One begins to think of race in Obama’s America like sex in some caricature of Freud’s Vienna: simultaneously the main theme of all conversation, and the one that can’t be mentioned. Instead of being “overcome,” historic American racism against nonwhite people has gone into deep cover and, with the irrefutable illogic of the unconscious, emerged as a newfangled American antiracism for the protection of white people.
In a polite New Yorker profile back in May, Breitbart had come across as a jovially savage, “just joshin’ you” provocateur, a Mexican-Jewish disciple of Camille Paglia. Calling himself “pro-miscegenation,” he compounded the confusion with some schizophrenic pronoun use: “There’s nothing in this country that is a worse accusation — in America, if you accuse somebody of racism, you have to disprove that.” He was sticking up for Rush Limbaugh, but now we know he was also articulating the right’s new strategy.
“This guy, is, I believe, racist,” said Glenn Beck of Obama back in 2009, probably because he believed, like Breitbart, that when you accuse somebody of racism, however baselessly, the burden of proof shifts to the accused. Crucially, too, these arbitrary, almost spasmodic cries of “racist” serve to devalue the word, paralyze public discourse, and make it easier for actual racist ideology to resurface under the guise of its opposite. Like Breitbart, Beck is a buffoon, but he’s not an idiot, and he’s certainly not harmless. The crowds thronging to join Beck’s march on Washington — conveniently coinciding with the 47th anniversary of King’s “I had a dream” speech — showed the rest of us that Obama’s “postracial” America looks a lot like racial America. Tens of thousands of white people gathered at the bidding of a man who’d claimed, with the easy demagogic facility of George Wallace, that our president has “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” No one bothered to ask Beck whether the Constitution is part of “white culture.” In fact there has been an authentic white culture in American history, or rather a way of life concerned above all with the protection and preservation of white ethnic domination, and playing up the white victim has always been a part of it.