Helen Thomas recently set off a firestorm with her comment that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to Germany or Poland. The comments resulted first, and predictably, with her apology. Over the weekend, with the heat turned up considerably, she decided to retire immediately (before she was fired). Her comments have raised a number of questions -- What was she thinking? Is she an anti-Semite? Should she lose her coveted front-row seat in the White House briefing room? However, one question immediately came to my mind when I learned of her retirement that I have yet to hear discussed: If she has to go, then why does Pat Buchanan still have a job?
Helen Thomas' view of the Israeli-Palestinian situation is out of step with mainstream American thought. She's been nearly universally condemned and rightfully so. And I'm not arguing that she's been wronged; words are weapons and sometimes, you shoot yourself. However, people should not be shocked at her comments. She is the daughter of Lebanese immigrants (no, I don't think all Lebanese think like this) and has long had very well know views on the Middle East.
Buchanan, meanwhile, has been able to successfully launder his racism through CNN, MSNBC, and as a syndicated columnist for decades despite that a career including stints in the Nixon and Reagan White House's in which he advised Nixon that Martin Luther King was "one of the most divisive men in contemporary history"; referred to the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa as "whites mistreating a couple of blacks" (sixty-seven Blacks were killed and scores more beaten and injured); defended South African Apartheid belittling the Free South Africa Movement, and delivered that disgusting 1992 Republican National Convention speech in which he declared that the country was in a culture war and his side had to "take back our cities, take back our culture, and take back our country." Allow me to translate: Black and Brown people out of the cities, no diversity, immigrants go home.
Buchanan has often waxed nostalgically about his upbringing in segregated Washington, D.C. He has written of Blacks having their place and Whites having theirs and everyone was fine with it. As a fourth-generation Washingtonian, I'm particularly struck by his coded racism: "There were no politics to polarize us then, to magnify every slight. The negroes of Washington had their public schools, restaurants, bars, movie houses, playgrounds and churches; and we had ours." My father and Buchanan are about the same age and his stories of growing up in segregated D.C. were not anything like Buchanan's. They revolved around police oppression, out-of-date hand-me-down school books, and racism.
While my reference to Buchanan is certainly aimed at him, his inclusion here speaks to the larger phenomenon of certain kinds of people spewing racism and being treated with impunity. For me, there are more than a few people of his ilk who don't get fired for inflaming the public discourse with racist talk.
So let Helen Thomas go; she earned her unemployment (though I am concerned about the free speech implications in all this). But the public discourse requires that people of goodwill to respond forcefully to racists, so let's make sure Thomas is not alone on the "retired" list. Buchanan is far more dangerous than Thomas ever was. Otherwise, she will simply be a scapegoat in a much larger circus of hypocrites.
Michael K. Fauntroy is an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. An author, commentator, and columnist, he blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com.