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WHAT DOES RACISM MEAN! What exactly does racism mean? Who exactly has it? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JULY 27, 2010

Eleven years later, he spills: Steve Benen was impressed with E. J. Dionne’s column (click this). Here at THE HOWLER, we weren’t.

How things change if we wait long enough! E. J. has his shorts in a wad in the wake of the Sherrod mess. The fellow can’t say strongly enough how wrong all the cowardice is. “The mainstream media and the Obama administration must stop cowering before a right wing that has persistently forced its propaganda to be accepted as news,” the fiery columnist says. And it isn’t just the Sherrod matter! E. J. wants the world to know that this has gone on for years:

DIONNE (7/26/10): [T]he Obama team was reacting to a reality: the bludgeoning of mainstream journalism into looking timorously over its right shoulder and believing that "balance" demands taking seriously whatever sludge the far right is pumping into the political waters.

This goes way back. Al Gore never actually said he "invented the Internet," but you could be forgiven for not knowing this because the mainstream media kept reporting he had.

There were no "death panels" in the Democratic health-care bills. But this false charge got so much coverage that an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll last August found that 45 percent of Americans thought the reform proposals would likely allow "the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly.”

It’s hard to be more dishonest. Eleven years later, E. J. pipes up with a key announcement: Al Gore never said he invented the Internet! But you may not know that, he angrily says, “because the mainstream media kept reporting he had.” Why did the mainstream press corps do that? It had been bludgeoned into “taking seriously whatever sludge the far right [was] pumping into the political waters,” E. J. excitedly thunders.

E. J. is basically right on his history, although he vastly understates the activist role his own paper played in the war against Gore. Ceci Connolly needed little help from anyone on “the far right,” although she (and others) sometimes took their dictation straight from the RNC. But then, E. J. also forgets his own role in this critical recent history. It’s hard to be more dishonest.

Al Gore said he invented the Internet! The claim was invented in March 1999; it got twenty months of play after that, linked to two other press corps inventions. (Al Gore said he inspired Love Story! Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal!) The claim was churned again and again—and again and again after that. Al Gore said he invented the Internet! It’s the claim which sent Bush to the White House.

And guess what? In the twenty months from March 1999 through November 2000, Dionne never said boo about it—not a single word! Dionne was writing two columns per week—and the big coward just let it go. Al Gore said he invented the Internet? E. J. never said different!

Somehow, this twenty-month silence has slipped E. J.’s mind. Do you mind if we rewrite his column?

DIONNE REWRITTEN: This goes way back. Al Gore never actually said he "invented the Internet," but you could be forgiven for not knowing this because gut-bucket slaves to power like me kept letting you think that he had.

My colleagues just kept repeating the claim. I refused to correct them.

People like E. J. could start to explain this critical bit of recent history. They could explain why they advanced that long series of bogus claims about Gore—or why they didn’t debunk those claims. But these folk are dishonest, right to the core.

Benen, please! Get off your ass!

Our search: We conducted our search through the Nexis archives. According to Nexis, Dionne never mentioned Love Canal or Love Story either. A vicious war ran for twenty straight months. Dionne—well-paid, well-positioned, well-pampered—quietly sat on his ass.

Eleven years later, the gentleman spills! It’s hard to be more like a “journalist.”

WHAT DOES RACISM MEAN (permalink): Andrew Breitbart’s sliming of Shirley Sherrod has touched off a fascinating, sprawling discussion. In the course of this discussion, we get to learn how people think about race and racism.

One example:

We were fascinated by this letter in Monday’s Washington Post, written by an obviously well-meaning person. Quite correctly, the writer praises Sherrod. But we were struck by the highlighted passages:

LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (7/26/10): Now that we know that Shirley Sherrod is among the minority of people who acknowledge their struggle with internal racism, who reshape their views to minimize that racism and who dare to speak publicly of the experience, we should not only reinstate her to her job, we should also celebrate her. Her candor and honesty should be a model for everyone who truly wants a world where racism plays no role. L. C. P., Troy, Va.

In her full speech, Sherrod told a story that merits more attention than it has received. (For one long excerpt, see below.) But in what way did Shirley Sherrod “acknowledge a struggle with internal racism?” In what way did Sherrod say that she had “reshaped her views to minimize that racism?” (Does this mean that she’s still in the grip of this racism—a racism she has only “minimized?”)

This letter adds a pleasing air of melodrama to the story Sherrod told. But is this framework accurate?

Sorry—we’d have to say it isn’t. We wouldn’t say Sherrod was “struggling with internal racism” in the story she told. But then, we’re old enough to remember what racism is—or at least, what it was in the past.

In the part of the speech which led to her firing, Sherrod said she thought a white farmer was talking down to her—“trying to show me he was superior to me”—even as he asked her for help, back in 1986. She said she hadn’t appreciated his attitude; as a result, she said she gave him less than her fullest effort after this first meeting. (“So I didn't give him the full force of what I could do.”) She found a (white) lawyer who could help him. Initially, she left it at that.

Later, Sherrod came to believe that this farmer’s (white) lawyer was making little attempt to help him—was actively giving him lousy advice. So she went out and found a second lawyer, a lawyer who would help the farmer. Reading between the lines of the speech, it seems that Sherrod was surprised to see a white lawyer throw a poor white client under the bus, just as he might have done with a poor black client. Clearly, though, this experience seems to have reshaped Sherrod’s understanding of the role she herself should play in the world. (“So, working with this farmer made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't. You know. And they could be black. They could be white. They could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people, those who don't have access the way others have.”)

Sherrod’s full speech deserves more attention than it has received—a great deal more attention, in fact. But in what way did Sherrod say or suggest that she had “struggled with internal racism?” That she had “reshaped her views to minimize that racism?” If an individual talks down to you and you don’t like it, does that mean you’re gripped by racism? Is it racism if you don’t give that person your fullest effort?

Actually, no, it isn’t —except in a world which has race and racism up the keister, a world in which every interaction between “blacks” and “whites” has to be fraught, by rule of law, with this exciting, sometimes useful disease.

What is racism? Did Sherrod have it? Is she still in its grip, despite her efforts at minimization? We’d say “no” to those last two questions, but that may be because we’re so old that we can remember was racism actually is—or at least, what racism used to be, before we liberals began to insist that it’s under every bed.

That letter-writer was well-intentioned. We’d be inclined to be less generous with some of our fiery liberal leaders. Our leaders have said some foolish things in the week since this matter hit. Is this effective? We have no idea, although we strongly doubt it. But is it really the best we can do? We’ll continue this rumination tomorrow, giving ourselves one more day to get our own claims in order.

Yes, we’re dumping the stuff we prepared about Howard Dean and Ed Schultz.

What racism used to mean: In her speech, Sherrod helps us recall what “racism” used to look like. This part of her speech has received remarkably little attention. As she starts, she is discussing her father, who was killed in a racial incident in 1965, when she was 17:

SHERROD: My father wasn't the first black person to be killed. He was a leader in the community. He wasn't the first one to be killed by white men in the county. But I couldn't just let his death go without doing something in answer to what happened.

I made the commitment on the night of my father's death, at the age of 17, that I would not leave the South, that I would stay in the South and devote my life to working for change. And I have been true to that commitment all of these 45 years.

You know, when you look at some of the things that I have done through the years and when you look at some of things that happened...I did my first two years at Fort Valley [State College], but so much was happening back at home, and then I met this man here—I will tell you a little about him—that I transferred back to Albany State and did the last two years.


But two weeks after I went to school at Fort Valley, they called and told me that a bunch of white men had gathered outside of our home and burned the cross one night.

Now, in the house was my mother, my four sisters, and my brother, who was born June 6—and this was September. That was all in that house that night. Well, my mother and one of my sisters went out on the porch. My mother had a gun. Another sister—you know some of this stuff, it's like movies, some of the stuff that happened through the years. I won't go into everything. I will just tell you about this.

One of my sisters got on the phone because we had organized a movement starting in June of '65, shortly—not long after my father's death.

That's how I met my husband. He wasn't from the North. See, I was (INAUDIBLE). He's from up south, though, in Virginia.


But, anyway, they—one of my sisters got on the phone and called other black men in the county. And it wasn't long before they had surrounded these white men. And they had to keep one young man from actually using his gun on one of them. You probably would have read about it had that happened that night. But they actually allowed those men to leave. They, they backed away and allowed them to get out of there.

But I won't go into some of the other stuff that happened that night, but do know that my mother and my sister were out on the porch with a gun, and my mother said, "I see you. I know who you are." She recognized some of them. I should tell you that she became the first black elected official in Baker County just 11 years later, and she is still serving you all.


She's chair of the board of education, and she's been serving almost 34 years.

I didn't know how I would go about carrying out the commitment I made that night, but when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (INAUDIBLE) he was the one who came to Albany and started the movement there in 1961. And he stayed.

You know, a lot of them went into the communities and they worked during the early part of the movement and they left. But he continued to stay in Southwest Georgia, and we've done a lot of stuff through the years. If—some of the things that have happened to us, you would probably be on the edge of your seat if I were to tell you about some of them. We've been in some very, very dangerous situations through the years, but we continue to work.

And, you know, God is so good, because people like me don't get appointed to positions like state director of rural development. They just don't get these kinds of positions, because I have been out there at the grassroots level, and I paid some dues.

But when I made the commitment years ago, I didn't know how—I didn't, I just—I didn't—I prayed about it that night. And as our house filled with people, I was back in one of the bedrooms praying and asking God to show me what I could do. I didn't have—the, the path wasn't laid out that night.

I just made the decision to, that I would stay and work. And—and, over the years, things just happened. And young people, I just want you to know that, when you're true to what God wants you to do, the path just opens up, and things just come to you, you know.


God is good. I can tell you that.

God is good—and bullshit isn’t. It’s sad to see the way our big news orgs have failed to relate this fuller story.

Racism doesn’t have to mean killing, of course. But what exactly does racism mean? And who exactly has it? In our view, our side has said a lot of dumb things in the week since that “edited” tape appeared. Is this really all we have? Do we really think this is effective?