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.

There's a lot in the speech that you could quibble with. Perhaps you don't buy that it's actually rich vs. poor. Perhaps you don't believe that many of the ills in black communities are brought on by people that live there. Maybe you don't think that its a good idea that you can't get fired from a government job. You can even debate her Edmund Morgan-like interpretation of racism. You can dispute that black people were once more communal. All fair points. But that isn't the argument that got Shirley Sherrod fired. Instead it's, as Andrew Breitbart has said, that this is an instance of Obama appointee preaching racism at an NAACP function.

Taking it all in, it must be said that the landscape is as follows: We have an administration that will contort itself to defend a movement whose convention speakers call for the reinstatement of the tools of segregation. That same administration will swiftly jettison an appointee, herself the victim of homegrown terrorism, for echoing the kind of message of redemption and personal responsibility that has become the president's hallmark on race. Andrew Breitbart says that Sherrod's speech, not the Tea Party's rhetoric, is the real racism. It is an argument that is as old as American white supremacy, and one that this administration, through its actions over the past week, has tacitly endorsed.

The argument has been made that this isn't Obama, just the people working under him. That theory elides the responsibility of leaders to set a tone. The tone that Obama has set, in regards to race, is to retreat with great velocity in the face of anything that can be defined as "racial." Granted, this has been politically smart. Also granted, Obama has done it with nuance. But it can not be expected that the president's subordinates will share that nuance.

More disturbingly, this is what happens when you treat the arrest of a black man, in his home, as something that can be fixed over beers. This is what happens when you silently assent to the notion that racism and its victims are somehow equally wrong. The ground, itself, is rigged with a narrative of inversion that goes back centuries. When you treat the two side as equals, expect not just more of the same. Expect worse.

In the short-run, it's easy to see the way out: apologize. Offer Shirley Sherrod her job back, whether she wants it or not. The long-run is much more fraught. I have long backed Obama's mixture of soft words and hard deeds on race. The point is that by targeting the broader demographic areas where black people are troubled, you can, at once, settle old business for black people while helping many more white people. Health care is the obvious model.

But words, too, have power and a strategy of falling back from the rhetoric of racists, while sometimes correct, is not definitive. There has to be some amount of courage, some understanding of the moment, to accompany the quiet strategy. I do not expect Barack Obama to condemn the Tea Party's racist elements, any more than I expect Ben Jealous to lead the war in Afghanistan. But I do not expect him, or his administration, to make the work of the NAACP harder, to contradict them for doing that which the administration can not. I do not expect them to minimize those elements, thus minimizing the NAACP's fight, and then accede, to people who are pulling from the darkest, vilest reaches of the American psyche.

On the great American scourge of racism, this administration must stand, sometimes publicly, for something. Failing that it will fall--indeed, already has fallen--for anything.