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A federal judge sends out the following e-mail from his chambers:

"Normally I don't send or forward a lot of these, but even by my standards, it was a bit touching. I want all of my friends to feel what I felt when I read this. Hope it touches your heart like it did mine. 

"A little boy said to his mother; 'Mommy, how come I'm black and you're white?'" the email joke reads. 

"His mother replied, 'Don't even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you're lucky you don't bark!'"

Caught and contacted by a reporter, all the predictable twists and turns ensued. Yes, the joke is racist, but I am not, personally, racist. I apologize to anyone who might have been offended and so forth.

One of the reasons why I stayed so long with the Ron Paul newsletters was because I thought they evinced a particular willingness to countenance cruelty. It is cruelty to suggest that 95 percent of black men in Washington D.C. are criminals and thus justifiable targets of state violence. It is cruelty to claim, without evidence, that the murder of Americans in the first WTC bombing was perpetrated by the Mossad. The root of each claim is an inability to see a class of people as individuals with families and fully formed lives.

What stuns you about this "joke" is the sheer embrace of cruelty. Here is a woman who lost her life to cancer. And what touches your heart is imagining her son as the product of bestiality. 

Though less crudely stated, this embrace of cruelty is arguably the dominant feature of the present conservative movement. It has been repeatedly expressed in alleged "humor." The assertion of a right of judgement over the First Lady's physical person, for instance.Or watermelon patches on the front lawn. Or Obama waffles.  There is little distance from that kind of cruelty to aspirin between one's legs and from aspirin between one's legs to transvaginal probes . 

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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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