How the right redefined racism

Without a challenge to their lies and distortions, the right wing will continue to shape the political discussion about race--and strip the concept of racism of all meaning.

THE FIRESTORM that erupted when low-level U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employee and civil rights activist Shirley Sherrod was fired was yet another example of the racial paranoia that consumes the Obama White House.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review. She is a frequent contributor on the subject of race and class and has written extensively on the struggle for housing justice. Her articles have also appeared on the Black Commentator, CounterPunch and Gaper's Block Web sites.

Moreover, it demonstrates the degree to which the "national discussion" on race has shifted so far to the right that the meaning and substance of racism has been reduced to either name-calling--or any mention of anything involving race.

The controversy over Sherrod took place in the aftermath of the NAACP calling out Tea Party racism--after a year of politicians and the mass media treating the Tea Partiers as a legitimate expression of politics instead of a "movement" built of race-baiting and scapegoating. Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart struck back at the NAACP with a doctored video clip intended to disparage Sherrod and make it seem as if she discriminated against a white farmer in her capacity as a government official.

In the full speech, however, Sherrod described her history from a farming family in the deep South, who faced a childhood shaped by white supremacy and whose father was murdered by white racists the same year as the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. An all-white jury refused to indict the racist murderers, but despite all of that, Sherrod came to see that ordinary white farmers were also victimized by a system of the "haves and have-nots."

The pathetic White House reaction to Breitbart's smear was to be expected. The Obama administration has yet to have anything meaningful to say about the persistence of racism in the U.S. While NAACP President Ben Jealous was denouncing Tea Party racism at the organization's national convention--and receiving death threats as a result--Michelle Obama used her keynote position to talk about "childhood obesity" in the Black community.

Once the doctored video of Sherrod was posted on the Internet, the NAACP also piled on, calling her a racist and demanding her resignation. In doing so, the organization defanged its denunciation of racism in Tea Party organizations by clumsily trying to equate what it believed to be Sherrod's "racism" with the racism of the Tea Partiers.

Apparently, having just passed a resolution against racism in the Tea Party "movement," the NAACP felt its message would be diluted if it didn't also immediately denounce the perceived "racism" of Sherrod.

But even after recognizing that they had made a mistake in accepting Breitbart's video as legitimate and after apologizing to Sherrod, NAACP officials continued to insist that they measure "civil and human rights with one yardstick." The organization released a statement in which it claimed a "zero-tolerance policy against racial discrimination, whether practiced by Blacks, whites or any other group."

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THESE ATTEMPTS to equate as racist acts "practiced by Blacks, whites or any other groups" distort who the historic and contemporary victims of racism in this country are.

There is no history of whites being the victims of racial discrimination in the U.S. Where such charges have been raised, they have come from right-wingers with an agenda against affirmative action and other social programs created to help African Americans, who were not only slaves in this country, but then faced another 100 years of legal discrimination after slavery that only ended one generation ago.

The civil rights movement and the Black Power era were instrumental in exposing racism at the core of American society and demanding legal remedies to create more opportunities for African Americans. As a result, by the early 1970s, Black poverty was cut in half, and more Blacks gained access to colleges and universities. Such reforms transformed Black life in the U.S.

Yet despite these historic blows to racism in America, the U.S. remains a deeply racist society in which African Americans suffer from discrimination in employment, education, housing, health care and, most prominently, the criminal justice system.

This history is the reason why the NAACP denouncing "all racism" is confusing and misleading.

It is also why media attempts to equate the NAACP and various Tea Party organizations as Black and white mirrors of each other is an affront to the historic struggle against racism in the U.S.

The NAACP has spent its 100 years of existence attempting to challenge racism and discrimination against African Americans. The Tea Party groups, on the other hand, are the modern inheritors of white supremacist formations like the White Citizens' Councils, with their cries for state's rights, hatred of dark-skinned immigrants, and fear and suspicion of government programs for the poor.

Even with the election of Barack Obama, African Americans continue to do worse in the U.S. because of racism. One look at any of the statistics that measure the quality of life in U.S. society proves that Blacks are worse off--whether it's the 16 percent unemployment rate for African Americans, compared to 9 percent for whites; or it's the sharp edge of the foreclosure crisis coming in Black communities.

Conservatives claim these disparities exist for reasons that range from biological to cultural. But racism and discrimination are the real reasons.

Moreover, in the name of "color blindness," the right wing has attacked what meager social programs did exist in the aftermath of the 1960s and '70s movements. Right-wingers claim that any programs set aside for African Americans or other minorities are, by definition, racist. Thus, the Reagan administration used the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Justice Department not to challenge discrimination and bigotry against Blacks, but affirmative action programs--on the grounds that because these programs used "racial quotas," they were, in fact, racist.

This turns the concept completely on its head--racism is no longer about systemic and systematic oppression, but any instance where the issue of race is considered.

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UNFORTUNATELY, WITHOUT a strong movement against racism, and with the right-wing monologue blaming African Americans for their own poverty, unemployment and underfunded schools--combined with the Democratic Party's turn to the right during the 1980s and after----there was little resistance in the mass media or in formal politics to this redefinition of racism.

Liberal organizations that tied their lot to the success of the Democratic Party felt pressure to adapt to the "new" message about personal responsibility as the central explanation for Black deprivation and disproportionate levels of poverty.

Thus, while the NAACP recognizes a political vacuum in left Black politics and is attempting to address it in part by calling out Tea Party racism and mobilizing alongside the AFL-CIO for the October 2 march for jobs, it is nevertheless doing so within a political framework that sees the Democratic Party in general and the Obama administration in particular as an ally in the struggle.

The implications are important. Consider Rev. Al Sharpton's response to the firing of Shirley Sherrod. Instead of criticizing Obama--as he would have if any entity other than the Obama administration had handled the situation as poorly--Sharpton claimed that any critique of Obama would "create the impression that Black leadership is fractured."

He went on to explain why holding Obama accountable would be a bad idea: "We are only greasing the rails for the right wing to run a train through our ambitions and goals for having civil and human rights in this country."

Without a politically independent, activist challenge to the right-wing lies and distortions about racism--and the liberal acquiescence to them--the right will continue to shape and dominate the debates and discussions about racism. And that will make it impossible to have "civil and human rights in this country."