Witch hunts and racists

President Obama's stand on Shirley Sherrod displays the moral spine of a bowl of pudding. Photo: The White House (Flickr)

NATCHITOCHES, La. ― Shirley Sherrod was “thrown under the bus” by the Obama administration in its haste to avoid charges of racism. It was done as quickly as her bosses could view the YouTube video posted by Andrew Breitbart and before (as was oft reported) Glen Beck could air it. They ejected her in less time than it takes drug lords to execute a snitch, with less concern for fairness and with less regard or the truth.

Sensitivity to charges of racism is much like sensitivity to poison ivy. Repeated exposure to poison ivy doesn’t make you less sensitive, but more so. As accusations of racism start flying, people get more and more spooked by them. Being accused of racism is much like being accused of witchcraft or child molestation.

The charge itself is toxic. Sherrod was lucky that the context of her comments was readily available, her supposed victims came to her defense, and much of the mainstream media dislikes Fox News even more than it claims to dislike racists. Otherwise she might be a pariah rather than a hero and the “injustice” that Press Secretary Gibbs says made his boss so cross would be enshrined as the righteous wrath of an angry agriculture secretary and his president at a witch, er, racist.

Racism is charged far too often on far too little evidence. The appearance is as bad as the reality. Several years ago a city official in Washington DC used the word “niggardly” in public. He was promptly denounced, his resignation demanded and his character assassinated, this in spite of the fact that “niggardly” is from old Norse and means “cheap,” he used it correctly, and it’s completely unrelated to the word with Latin roots meaning “black” that his ignorant persecutors thought he intended. The mayor, who should have known better, accepted his resignation while the public inquisitors pondered burning him in DuPont Circle. Luckily for him he was gay, and outrage from the gay community and the ridicule of people with 12th grade vocabularies made the mayor and the inquisition blink.

In the last decade we’ve been warned that electing Republicans will result in the burnings of black churches. The Tea Party is racist, John McCain is racist, the GOP is racist, anyone who doesn’t like President Obama is racist, opposition to now-Justice Sotomayor is racist and opposition to the “public option” is racist.

It seems today that one can hardly take a stand on any important issue at all without having to consider the racial implications. Some members of the tea party, GOP, and even some Democrats and White House staffers are certainly racist, but there are all sorts of good reasons to dislike just about any policy that have nothing to do with race. The charge of racism sweeps away legitimate objections and turns everything into an issue of right versus wrong, good people versus child molesters, True Belief versus witches. It turns politics into a cross between religion and a nasty game of “gotcha.”

We have no idea what Breitbart’s real intentions were in airing that bit of video. It was unfair and potentially destructive to Sherrod, but the NAACP shared in creating a poisonous atmosphere in which a witch-frenzy could flourish. The tea parties might be wrong on a lot of things and the people of Arizona might be wrong in their approach to illegal immigrants (or not), but to dismiss them as racist is political chemical warfare that invites equally nasty response.

Charges of racism are best leveled at clearly identifiable acts of racism, not at groups of people who support policies that have racial implications. The minimum wage is an abomination that has real and devastating racial dimensions; the “war on drugs” clearly hits black and Hispanic communities much harder than it hits white America. Yet it would be mistaken and crude to call everyone who supports minimum wage laws and drug prohibition “racists” when “wrong” or “misguided” is sufficient, even though those laws keep young black men in prison and out of the civilian work force.

No one looks good in this incident except Sherrod (though her publicist might suggest to her that she’ll look better if she says less). Obama has seemed nothing but weak. His initial comments condemned Sherrod and supported Secretary Vilsack, but now that Sherrod is suddenly a saint rather than a pariah he says that Vilsack acted too quickly (Vilsack is joining Sherrod under that bus).

His press secretary makes Obama sound as passionate about justice as he is about dietary fiber. The president’s views of race, racism and justice seem less a matter of bedrock conviction than of wet fingers in the media wind. Acting out of fear of what they might say on Fox or MSNBC or any other network is just craven. If the President won’t stand up against witch-hunters, what good is he? He should stop the panicking over his poll numbers and start doing his job.

James Picht teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, Louisiana. From the age of six he always knew what he wanted to be. Economist wasn’t it. But after accidentally falling in to it he found that he liked it. Now he also likes raising his two children, being a husband to Lisa, and taking pictures of trees in the middle of the night. While he likes the word “niggardly,” he dare not use it; there are too many stupid people in the world.


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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