Op-Ed

Focus on politics and race

Unfair strategy to hurt Obama backfired on high-profile blogger

After the Shirley Sherrod episode, there's no longer any need to mince words: A cynical right-wing propaganda machine is peddling the poisonous fiction that when African-Americans or other minorities reach positions of power, they seek some kind of revenge against whites.

A few purveyors of this bigoted nonsense might actually believe it. Most of them, however, are merely seeking political gain by inviting white voters to question the motives of the nation's first African-American president.

Sherrod, until Monday an official with the Department of Agriculture, was supposed to be mere collateral damage. Andrew Breitbart, who often speaks at Tea Party rallies, posted on his Web site a video snippet of a speech that Sherrod, who is African-American, gave to a NAACP meeting earlier this year. In it, Sherrod seemed to boast of having withheld from a white farmer some measure of aid that she would have given to a black farmer.

It looked like a clear case of black racism in action. Within hours, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had forced her to resign. The NAACP, under attack from the right for having denounced racism in the Tea Party movement, issued a statement blasting Sherrod and condemning her attitude as unacceptable.

But Breitbart had overstepped. The full video showed Sherrod wasn't bragging about being a racist, she was telling what amounted to a parable about prejudice and reconciliation. For one thing, the incident happened in 1986 when she was working for a nonprofit, long before she joined the Obama administration. For another, she helped that white man and his family save their farm, and they became friends. Through him, she said, she learned to look past race toward our common humanity.

In effect, she was telling the story of America's struggle with race, but with the roles reversed. For hundreds of years, black people were enslaved, oppressed and discriminated against by whites — until the civil rights movement gave us all a path toward redemption.

With the Obama presidency, though, has come a flurry of charges -- from the likes of Breitbart but also from more substantial conservative figures -- about alleged incidences of racial discrimination against whites by blacks and other minorities. Recall, for example, the way Obama's critics had a fit when he offered an opinion about the confrontation between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a white police officer. Remember the over-the-top reaction when it was learned that Justice Sonia Sotomayor had once talked about how being a "wise Latina" might affect her thinking.

Newt Gingrich called Sotomayor a racist. He was lightning-quick to call Sherrod a racist, too. I'd suggest that the former House speaker consider switching to decaf, but I think he knows exactly what he's doing.

These allegations of anti-white racism are being deliberately hyped and exaggerated because they are designed to make whites fearful. It won't work with most people, of course, but it works with some -- enough, perhaps, to help erode Obama's political standing and damage his party's prospects at the polls.

Before Sherrod, the cause celebre of the "You Must Fear Obama" campaign involved something called the New Black Panther Party. Never heard of it? That's because it's a tiny group that exists mainly in the fevered imaginations of its few members. Also in the alternate reality of Fox News: One of the network's hosts has devoted more than three hours of air time in recent weeks to the grave threat posed by the NBPP. Actually, I suspect that this excess is at least partly an attempt by a relatively obscure anchor to boost her own notoriety.

The Sherrod case has fully exposed the right-wing campaign to use racial fear to destroy Obama's presidency, and I hope the effect is to finally stiffen some spines in the administration. The way to deal with bullies is to confront them, not run away. Yet Sherrod was fired before even being allowed to tell her side of the story. She said the official who carried out the execution explained that she had to resign immediately because the story was going to be on Glenn Beck's show that evening. Ironically, Beck was the only Fox host who, upon hearing the rest of Sherrod's speech, promptly called for her to be reinstated. On Wednesday, Vilsack offered to rehire her. Shirley Sherrod stuck to her principles and stood her ground. I hope the White House learns a lesson.

Tea Party right to oust leader who wrote racist commentary

Leaders of the Tea Party movement reacted angrily to the NAACP's call for the movement to purge "racist elements" from its ranks. Then, a few days later, one of the movement's biggest organizations did precisely what the NAACP had advised.

Lesson: It's easier to appreciate an idea after you've decided that it was your idea in the first place.

The National Tea Party Federation, an alliance of 85 member and affiliated organizations, according to its Web site, expelled its most prominent faction, the Tea Party Express. That move came after the Express' spokesman Mark Williams offered the world a breathtaking example of the sort of racism that Tea Party leaders had long denied was much of a problem.

Williams' offense came in a satirical jab he posted on his blog, aimed at Ben Jealous, president of the organization formally known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The satire was in the form of a letter from what Williams called "Colored People" to President Abraham Lincoln. Williams' humor only went further downhill from there.

"Dear Mr. Lincoln," he began. "We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop...!"

Lesson: If you care about your public image, do not fill your spokesman position with a nutty political talk show host.

This internal Tea Party schism should be interesting. Tea Party Express has some muscle behind it. Its well-attended national bus tours feature big names like Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter and "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher — and raise big money for conservative candidates.

The Wilson schism illustrates what Matthew Continetti, associate editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, characterized in a recent cover story as "The Two Faces of the Tea Party" as represented by two cable TV stars, CNBC's Rick Santelli and Fox News' Glenn Beck.

Santelli probably ignited the tea party movement from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in February 2009. He famously called for protests against what he saw as the moral hazards in President Barack Obama's Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan. Despite striking differences between Santelli and Beck, who embodies the insane TV anchor Howard "Mad as Hell" Beale in the movie Network, the two men easily represent what Continetti calls "the dual nature of conservative populism."

Unlike Beck's crowd, Santelli did not call Obama a "socialist" or challenge the president's legitimacy or patriotism. He even wrote a month after his on-air rant that "I hope that the president and the final stimulus plan succeed" because "I love my country." He may not get his own radio talk show with sensible talk like that, but he captures the best of this country's optimistic, even-handed spirit. It's not hard to imagine Santelli's conservatism as "easily integrated into a conservative Republican party" as Ronald Reagan's in the 1980s, Continetti writes, "with an affirmative agenda of spending cuts, low taxes, entitlement reform and free trade."

Maybe not. But in the meantime, the Grand Old Party has to wrestle with the Beck style — as paranoid, pugnacious and polarizing as that which cost Barry Goldwater a landslide loss in the 1964 presidential race.

Warning the right of "the twin temptations of intellectualism and exuberance" in the scholarly National Affairs magazine, Henry Olsen, vice president at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, also describes a critical divide within the Tea Party and other populist movements from America's past.

"The challenge for conservatives," Olson concludes, "is to propose alternatives that offer a real change of direction without seeming too radical." So true.

Thinking conservatives understand. With so much at stake, then, the Tea Party movement should quietly thank the NAACP for doing them a favor. It needs to purge embarrassments like Williams from their ranks, not just to please the NAACP (fat chance of that) but for the sake of their movement's future.

They need to reassure fellow conservatives, as well as the moderate voters the movement's favored candidates will need if they are going to win elections.

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