THE BLOG

The Trouble With "Black Folks"

08/13/2010 02:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Unfortunately, many white people aren't conversant (or honest) enough about the roots of racial bias to admit that often when a high-profile black person is accused of illegal activities or just clouded judgment that deep within is a sense of validation, confirmation and for some, even satisfaction. Even if the evidence turns out to be 100 percent fiction.

We have all seen at least one episode of a crime show in which a trigger-happy culprit holds a gun pressed against the temple of a hostage while the SWAT team attempts to distract and disarm him.

Such is the case with the recent antics of Andrew Breitbart and Shirley Sherrod -- a.k.a the "Sherrod Charade" -- by countless online bloggers and commentators.

Sherrod was forced to resign several weeks ago from her job as director of Rural Development in Georgia for the Department of Agriculture as a result of a story and video Breitbart posted that painted her as a "racist" when she revealed her past feelings of resentment towards whites who lynched her father many years ago.

The video clip was then picked up by Fox News and sparked a knee-jerk reaction from the White House and Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack. Both have since apologized for giving Sherrod the sack after realizing the video clip was taken out of context. In actuality the story Sherrod told was how she overcame racial hatred and actually helped a white farming family as a result. The truth was exactly the opposite of what was reported.

According to right wing bombshell Ann Coulter, "The whole key to this story is that Andrew Breitbart was set up," she told Sean Hannity on Fox News last week. Clearly a proponent of reconstructive surgery when facts are sagging, Coulter insists that the conservative blogger was the victim of a "fraud" by the person who sent him the edited video. "The person who sent the edited tape has to know what the full speech said," she argued, noting that Breitbart should "reveal his source."

Breitbart, one of the hostage takers in this situation, didn't seem overly concerned about adhering to journalistic standards that require tedious fact checking. And it seems that Coulter, the former editor of the Cornell Law Review -- who makes a fortune by giving truth a face-lift -- isn't bothered that Breitbart might ultimately be responsible for compromising his credibility as a legitimate source of information.

Unfortunately, in the midst of a bewildering stand-off in which truth is held hostage, the NAACP forgot the rules of racial engagement and aligned itself with the gun waving lunatic who also convinced CNN and other news sources to divest themselves of the ultimate weapon -- investigative journalism. As a result Sherrod's resignation allows her to join the ranks of high profile Black Americans eagerly demonized in the press.

Speaking of, ask 10 white folks what they think about Al Sharpton and 90 percent will probably groan dismissively and mumble something derogatory about his pompadour and tailored suits. But then ask them what they know about him apart from championing Tawana Brawley (the young woman who falsely accused a gang of white men of raping her in 1987) and they will give you a blank stare.

That Al Sharpton has played a pivotal role in turning up the volume on racially motivated crimes like the 1989 murder of Yusuf Hawkins, a black teenager whose only transgression was walking down the wrong block of a Brooklyn Street, or defending the victims of Bernard Goetz when he opened fire on four unarmed black teenagers, seems irrelevant.

While it is true that Sharpton has spent decades simultaneously drawing attention to himself, his motivations and contributions have been discredited. But what is also true is that as a result, the national landscape of discussion around police brutality and racial profiling has shifted because of Sharpton's perceived grandstanding.

As with many Black "elites" Sharpton is reduced to a cartoon character not unlike the Reverend Jessie Jackson, Henry Louis Gates and any other Black man or woman who dares to publicly voice opposition about social matters.

The question we seldom ask ourselves is why when a person of darker complexion is accused or suspected of either a crime, or just bad judgment, the maxim of "innocent until proven guilty" is easily tossed to the curb? That it didn't occur to major news outlets -- or the White House for that matter -- to verify the information regarding the Shirley Sherrod charade is instructive. If those who failed to fact check claim it was "an honest mistake," then perhaps a solution to the "mistake" is an "honest" discussion of why condemnation was so easily embraced.

Whenever I suggest to other whites that the reason many of us are comfortable with demonizing Black people is historical, I am met with a string of disclaimers that reject the notion out of hand. Most responses start with "but I'm not racist" and the conversation deteriorates from there.

The reality is that in order for systemic and institutional racism to survive for several hundred years, it was necessary for white folks to denigrate and diminish the value of darker skinned people -- not only to justify slavery and Jim Crowe but, frankly, so that many whites could sleep at night.

To some, acknowledging collective culpability is pointless and unproductive. Unfortunately, our unwillingness to admit the unsavory habit of demonizing nonwhites is a tough one to break and only increases the absurdity of suspicions on the part of whites.

The adamant denial on behalf of Tea Party "birthers" and socialist alarmists who refute that the bizarre accusations leveled at President Obama are -- at least in part -- racially motivated is understandable. As a nation we purport zero tolerance where racism is concerned and the fear of being called racist has escalated the level of denial that internalized racial bias exists.

Unfortunately in every sector of society -- whether criminal justice, education and health care -- those of us classified as white still lean in favor of policies and practices that marginalize and even demonize nonwhites. Our national addiction of superiority is most clearly noticeable in immigration where mostly nonwhites are vilified as a matter of course, and very often while spouting rhetoric about what it means to be "American."

Maybe it wouldn't hurt to have an old fashioned, civilized "tea party" conversation to discuss what really lies beneath our rush to judgment and suspicion about all those internalized fears and biases about darker-skinned people. And who knows, we might just discover that sometimes (not always) the trouble with "black folk" is actually "white folk."