Many thought that Barack Obama's election to the presidency would signal that racism was now largely left to America's past. The Shirley Sherrod case makes palpably evident, however, a profound shift that has materialized in the politics of race in America since the 1980s.
Conservatives, overwhelmingly white, have seized on any racial reference by political figures to charge that the latter are perpetuating racism. Institutional racism is deemed anomaly rather than any structural condition. As a result, conservative insistence on a literal colorblindness has undercut any attempts to invoke racial considerations to redress the lingering debilitating effects of past discrimination.
Conservatives have figured out a partially effective politics of race that speaks to their principles, places liberals on the defensive, and not only gets conservatives off the racial hook for being soft on racism, but enables them to set the terms of the racial debate. They can project themselves as crusaders for a colorblind America in the face of color conscious liberals.
The differences regarding race and racism have been exacerbated since Obama's election.
Conservative white commentators have latched on to any use of racial expression by liberal or progressive politicians to charge racism. When President Obama chided Cambridge, Mass. police for acting too quickly in the Henry Louis Gates arrest he was accused of favoring a black man because he is black and he himself was accused of racism. When NAACP President Benjamin Jealous recently appealed to the Tea Party leaders to disown racist individuals in the movement, he was denounced as racist for even raising the possibility. And when Andrew Breitbart released part of a videotape showing State of Georgia Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, recounting that she had once looked to discriminate against white farmers in providing assistance to save their land, she was condemned by almost everyone.
The conservative strategy has sought to undercut any advantage liberals might acquire from redressing ongoing evidence of racial discrimination. After all, if a black man has ascended to the highest political office in the country, what further racial barriers can there be?
Race has always had a political register in America, and today is different only in the ring that register now assumes.
Shifting the point of racial emphasis -- putting the racial boot on the other foot, so to speak -- makes liberals much less likely to support or defend race specific remedies to intractable social issues. The quickness with which Shirley Sherrod was forced to step down from her government job reveals just how effective the tactic has been. But even more disturbing, the shift has also licensed the possibility for conservative whites pretty much to say anything they want regarding race.
All of this begins to explain the proliferation of racist expression we have been witnessing since President Obama was elected.
Examples abound: the pernicious images of the President that have pervaded protests and the Internet (literally thousands and thousands of images, most of them with insinuating racist implication); the easy and steady invocation of the "n" word in public life (Mel Gibson and Laura Schlessinger not even the most recent, as evidenced by the resigning Mayor of Cobleskill, New York, who referred to Martin Luther King Day as "N . . . . . . Day" and as Obama's CHANGE campaign as "Come Help and Get a N . . . . . . Get Elected Campaign," and so on.
The Sherrod case is unusual among these recent examples in that the apologies she received from conservatives after it was revealed that the initial video release of her remarks had been edited to take the remarks completely out of context. Far from making a case for aiding black farmers while ignoring white farmers, she was showing how she had overcome these prejudices held twenty years ago and saw the need today to help all farmers in need, no matter their racial identity. Bill O'Reilly was only the most prominent conservative to admit his too quick rush to judgment, joined as he was by President Obama and the offer of reinstatement to a promoted government job, which Sherrod turned down on Tuesday.
Far from being a thing of the past, racism has re-emerged as a key instrument of American politics, only now to new purpose. It requires critical attention, political commitment, and, above all, principled leadership on all sides to face down.