On Lacking All Conviction

Let's take a moment to understand what we've seen over the past several days. As of last week, the Tea Party was a movement whose leadership included a man who once called the first black president of the United States, "a welfare thug," and who attempted to satirize the NAACP in the following fashion:

Dear Mr. Lincoln,

We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!

It was also a coalition that hosted a speaker at its national convention who once argued for reinstatement of some of the vilest implements of segregation and charged that Obama was a "socialist ideologue" elected by people "who could not spell the word vote or say it in English. It was a movement that hosted politicians who charged that Barack Obama "favors the black person," The NAACP, responding to this history, requested that the Tea Party denounce the elements of racism in its midst.

With that as a backdrop, Joe Biden offered a limited defense of the group:

"I wouldn't characterize the Tea Party as racist," he said on Sunday's "This Week." But "there are individuals who are either members of or on the periphery of some of their things, their -- their protests -- that have expressed really unfortunate comments."

It's important to note the shift in argument from "elements of racism" to "a racist group." Perhaps Biden just answering a question. In any case, he was not at pains to take up the NAACP's more nuanced point. Nor was he much interested in the question--the notion that Tea Party racism is reducible to people "on the periphery" who have "expressed really unfortunate comments" is a woeful understatement directly at odds with the facts. But that is the administration's position.

Yesterday, that same administration forced out, Shirley Sherrod, a longtime Civil Rights worker and black USDA appointee, evidently, because she dared confess that she'd once been motivated by racial prejudice but had since seen the error of her ways. Sherrod details how, as a child, her family was essentially terrorized by the Klan and white vigilantes. Her father was murdered 45 years ago. Her widowed mother, at one point, had to stand on the porch with a rifle to fight off the Klan. "I know who you are!" she yelled at them.

Sherrod's personal story is about redemption, and the case she highlights took place 20 years ago, long before she was working for the federal government.:

Young people I want you to know that when you're true to what God wants you to do the path just opens up and things come to you. God is good I can tell you that. When I made that commitment, I was making it to black people and to black people only. But you know God will show you things and put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people.

It's worth watching the entire tape. Sherrod's message is strikingly Obamaesque. After detailing her own awakening, she pushes a message of personal responsibility arguing that many of the worst ills in the black community are perpetrated by the people living in that community, and that much of the struggle now comes down to young people working harder. There is even that standard black riff about how we once took care of our own, and spanked each other's children, the same riff Obama offered last year before the same NAACP, which Sherrod was addressing.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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