The Season of Racial Discontent

For anyone who thought the election of Barack Obama ushered in an era of post-racial harmony, several events that have transpired over the past few months should assuage any doubts of such a notion. Here are a few of the incidents:

  • Shirley Sherrod, a 62-year-old Black woman with a long history of civil rights activism, was falsely accused of racial bias by right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart and is forced to resign from her position as Georgia state director of rural development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • Oscar-winning director Mel Gibson is caught (for a second time) spewing racist language to his wife including the word ‘nigger’.
  • A brawl between several Black and White men at a state fair in Iowa City, Iowa was believed to have racial overtones.
  • Talk show host Laura Schlessinger, in a conversation with a Black female caller, launches into verbal tirade repeating the word ‘nigger’ multiple times.
  • Fox News host Glenn Beck leads a march in the nation’s capital in an effort “to reclaim the civil rights movement.
  •  Michael Enright, a 21-year-old White college student, is charged with stabbing Ahmed Sharif, a New York cab driver and 43-yearold Bangladeshi immigrant.
  • A number of right-wing organizations have drummed up perverse propaganda in an effort to convince Americans that Obama is not a Christian.

It seems that race relations in certain quarters of America have become intense during Obama’s tenure as commander–in-chief. From more benign, yet problematic comments such as Nevada Senate candidate Harry Reid’s reference to Obama as a “light-skinned Negro with no Negro dialect,” to more problematic rhetoric from former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin urging Laura Schlessinger “not to retreat, but rather, reload” in response to the criticism Schlessinger received for repeatedly using one of the most vile racial epithets in American history, to disturbing comments from Kentucky Tea Party candidate Ron Paul who described “certain portions” of the Civil Rights Act as “problematic.” During her tirade, Schlessinger also offended those Americans involved in interracial marriages and relationships. In the case Gibson, let’s be honest, were we really all that surprised?

Not all has been discouraging. In response to Beck, Al Sharpton countered with his own march. Moreover, recent news reports have stated that the Iowa City incident was not likely to be racially motivated and the William Morris Talent Agency dropped Gibson from its roster of clients. All these happenings aside, perhaps the most sinister activity that occurred was Breitbart’s attempt to smear Sherrod as a racist hell bent on exacting revenge on a White farmer because of his race. When in reality, her story spoke of a personal experience of racial transformation and unity. Virtually all of the mainstream media, save for CNN, ran with this Breitbart’s narrative.

There is no doubt that Breitbart’s malicious actions in purposely editing and distorting Sherrod’s words were in response to the challenge by the NAACP and in particular, president Ben Chavis’ urging that the Tea Party remove racist elements from its ranks. While justice was served because Sherrod was publicly vindicated, the more disturbing factor was how the NAACP allowed itself (to use the term by NAACP chairman Julian Bond) to be “snookered” by forces with a long history of hostility toward racial equality. Given the source, the NAACP should have been suspect from the outset. Given the fact that they reacted in such a frantic, defensive manner without doing a basic investigation does not bode well for the state of the organization

The increasing level of hostility toward those who choose to worship another religion independent of Christianity, verbal and violent attacks on immigrants for religious, cultural and economic reasons to Schlessinger announcing that she’s leaving radio at the end of the year in an effort to “retain her First Amendment rights,” Americans have become caught up in an ever larging typhoon of finger pointing, paranoia and social deafness. Responsible leaders and average citizens of goodwill must work together in an effort to re-establish a level of principled leadership and to redirect our nation toward one that respects racial, religious, sexual and political pluralism.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African-American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book “Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board” (Rowman and Littlefield Publisher, Spring 2008).