In the wake of the election of President Obama, the mainstream media posited the false notion that America was now in a 'post-racial' era in which the civil rights battles of the past were no longer relevant.
In this fantasy, having an African American in the Oval Office would be seen as proof that race was quickly losing its historical stranglehold on the American consciousness. We would all be seen as equal and the institutional barriers that once hindered blacks and other minorities would fall to the wayside as we walked hand in hand into a 'post-racial' future.
While it's clear that media reports of a 'post-racial' America have been greatly exaggerated, the right-wing has organized around this fallacy and launched a media campaign designed to target and destroy civil rights and social justice organizations.
Right-wing efforts to characterize progressive groups as "racist" and "socialist" are not just about stoking racial fears among some whites for a victory in the 2010 mid-term and 2012 presidential elections. It's also about derailing progress and ensuring that social justice organizations lose their credibility and capacity to mobilize and be a voice for members of our society that have been discriminated against, disenfranchised, denied rights and a fair opportunity to be full citizens in our democracy.
In their attempt to question his legitimacy and cast the president as a radical with a pro-black agenda who has aligned himself with "reverse racists," the right has taken to the airways and are using social media sites to distribute doctored videos and demonize social justice advocates for continuing the very advocacy work that has helped to move our country forward over the past 50 years.
The NAACP, after rightfully calling out racist elements of the Tea Party movement during its annual convention this month, became the latest target of a smear campaign that twisted USDA employee Shirley Sherrod's story of personal transformation and racial reconciliation into an "example" of the NAACP's supposed condoning of racist statements.
To be sure, the NAACP and Obama administration jumped the gun in not asking the appropriate questions and fact checking before considering the source and publicly condemning Sherrod. Realizing the injustice that had taken place, the NAACP moved quickly to correct its initial missteps. The Sherrod incident not only exposed the lengths to which some will twist the truth to advance their agenda, but also shined light on the decline of journalistic standards, and the increased pressure on civil rights organizations to quickly respond to media attacks designed to undermine their credibility and weaken their ability to fight for a better and more just America.
The disparities experienced by many African Americans and other minorities were not wiped away on January 21, 2009. Across the board, in health, education, housing and other socioeconomic indicators, African Americans fair worse. The African American unemployment rate for example, is nearly twice the rate of whites. And as Brandeis sociologist Thomas Shapiro notes, "even when African-Americans do everything right -- get an education and work hard at well-paying jobs -- they cannot achieve the wealth of their white peers in the workforce, and that translates into very different life chances."
These inequities are not new and are widely known, but in the current political climate, could prove more difficult to tackle given the attacks on the organizations that have traditionally taken the mantle to fight for resources and policy solutions to address them.
At its convention this month, the NAACP voted on over 70 resolutions addressing many of the aforementioned disparities. The mainstream media, driven by controversy and the need to boost ratings focused on the resolution condemning the Tea Party. How much coverage has the media given to issues addressed in the other resolutions? Not much according to a recent study of media coverage of African Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
And shouldn't the NAACP get some credit for helping to ferret out Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams? Its en vogue to criticize the organization as irrelevant and out of touch, but were it not for a legacy of speaking out and calling on all Americans to stand up for the values we hold dear, where would we be as a nation? Like many nonprofits, the organization is finding its footing in a social media culture that is driving mainstream news outlets to prop up stories even when the facts aren't exactly what they seem.
Speaking at the National Urban League's 100th Centennial Conference, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed quoted Martin Luther King Jr., reminding the audience that the arc of history bends toward justice. "But it doesn't bend on its own, it takes us tugging at," Reed said.
If we are to ever come close to the nation that we want America to be--one where everyone has equal opportunity to succeed--we must recognize that some are organizing against this very ideal. And while we can constructively call on civil rights organizations to be more responsive to the needs of the communities that they serve, its also incumbent on all of us to support (i.e., join, donate, participate) them in fighting against those that want to move us away from achieving the progress that would be evident in the 'post-racial' America that so many prematurely embraced.