Hidden Meanings in a Public Scandal

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Why did anyone ever believe that Shirley Sherrod might have stood before a couple hundred people and given a speech in which she publicly proclaimed herself a racist?


There are several ways to answer the question. Errol Morris might remind us of the seductive verisimilitude of visual evidence--it's unlikely that a partial transcript of her remarks would have had the visceral impact of a video clip. Marc Ambinder points out that her dismissal was likely the result of USDA appointees seeking to anticipate the desires of their superiors; what actually happened became secondary to guessing how the White House would want them to respond. Josh Green laments the media circus, racing to stay ahead of the curve on a story, without pausing to consider that its source has proven not merely unreliable, but malignant. Jamelle Bouie fingers our craven refusal to confront race and racism in an honest fashion, leaving a void for provocateurs to fill. And all of that is undoubtedly correct, but insufficient. It fails to explain why the charge itself didn't seem so improbable as to beggar belief. 

The excerpted remarks struck a chord, I think, because they resonated with deeply held suspicions. Here's Andrew Breitbart explaining why, furnished with just the two-minute clip, he felt comfortable running with the story:
"I think the video speaks for itself," he said. "The way she's talking about white people...is conveying a present tense racism in my opinion. But racism is in the eye of the beholder." He also takes issue with how the audience, many of them members of the NAACP, respond positively to her comments -- proof, he says, of prevalent racism.
For Breitbart, and his millions of readers, racism is in the eye of the beholder. They start with the twisted conviction that blacks harbor racist views, and then interpret everything they encounter in support of that belief.

The result is esotericism. Words cease to be taken at face value. If the presumption is that blacks are racist, and a particular individual leads a life that seems utterly devoid of prejudice or discrimination, it merely proves their incredible deviousness in hiding their inner beliefs. It makes those imagined beliefs more threatening, and their exposure more urgent. A poorly phrased remark or ill-judged association becomes a rare glimpse at their true self; it is assigned greater value than a lifetime of words and actions.

We have seen this play out over and over again in the last two years. A judicial nominee says 'wise Latina,' and the remark draws more attention than two decades of actual rulings from the bench. A candidate attends intemperate sermons, or shares a cup of coffee with an unrepentant terrorist, and his own consistent record of moderate centrism suddenly becomes construed as a mere facade for his true radicalism, which has somehow failed to ever find expression in any of his own acts or words. His wife tells an audience how proud she is of her country, and is branded as an angry black woman, instead of the all-American girl she actually is. The list goes on.

In each case, the controversy requires an esoteric reading. The great preponderance of the evidence is dismissed as concealing what the enlightened few are able to recognize as the hidden truth. Small deviations, instead of being ignored as insignificant exceptions, become freighted with greater meaning than the norm. And these arguments are immune from rebuttal. Any action, any words that would seem to contradict the esoteric reading can be dismissed as cover. Anyone unable to see the hidden meanings that are so readily apparent to believers can safely be ignored, because they refuse to see the truth.

The only solution is to separate the two realms of discourse. Esotericism is incompatible with empiricism. If the overwhelming weight of evidence suggests that Shirley Sherrod is a good, decent person, then she probably is. To conclude otherwise requires substituting fantasy for fact. And regrettably, that's just what happened.  


This post first appeared here under the name Cynic.

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University, and a lecturer in history at Babson College. He previously contributed to TheAtlantic.com under the name Cynic.

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