The latest installment in our never-ending "conversation" about race is underway, thanks to the Shirley Sherrod affair. But before we get to the week's developments, a bit of history.
In June of 1988, George H.W. Bush started telling a very scary story about his opponent, Michael Dukakis. Or rather, not so much about Dukakis, but about a man named Willie Horton. Horton, a prisoner in Massachusetts, had skipped from a furlough while Dukakis was governor and victimized a young couple, raping the woman and assaulting the man. There were some key points of the story Bush left out: The furlough program had been started by Dukakis' Republican predecessor, and Dukakis had ended it, for instance. Horton's name also wasn't actually "Willie" but William, and he had never been known by the name the Bush campaign was using. Bush also didn't mention that "Willie" Horton was black and his victims white, but he didn't have to -- Horton's menacing mug shot would soon be shown hundreds of times on the news, and the couple were available for interviews.
For Willie Horton to become a national figure, Bush had to have a conversation with his advisers, among them Roger Ailes, currently the head of the Fox News Channel, and legendary operative Lee Atwater. They told Bush about Horton and explained how in their focus groups, white voters went positively nuts when they heard the story and turned against Dukakis. The advisers asked Bush for permission to make Willie Horton one of the pillars of their campaign. Bush said yes.
Almost no one who knew him thought that George H.W. Bush harbored personal animus toward black people. But the contents of his heart didn't matter when he made that decision, and they don't much matter to history. Bush was neither the first Republican nor the last to decide that the path to victory lay in picking at the scab of race, in order to make white voters feel afraid, or angry, or resentful. And here we are again, with a group of conservatives -- not a presidential candidate this time, but what we might call entrepreneurs of racial division -- doing all they can to convince whites that they are threatened by dangerous, vengeful blacks.
The modern history of this tactic dates to Richard Nixon, who employed the "Southern strategy" meant to cut into the Democratic Party's working-class base. By moving attention away from class divisions and onto racial divisions, Nixon would convince white voters that elitist Northern liberals were taking from them and giving to undeserving blacks. It would play out again and again, in ways symbolic and substantive, from Ronald Reagan's imaginary "welfare queens," to Willie Horton, to Newt Gingrich's crusade against "midnight basketball." The white-hot center of this argument is the idea that advancement by racial minorities necessarily involves taking something away from whites. "You needed that job," said the infamous "White hands" ad from Jesse Helms' 1990 campaign, "but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota."
When Andrew Breitbart posted on his website an out-of-context video snippet meant to fool people into believing an Agriculture Department official was discriminating against white people, he didn't have to wonder whether the story would move outward from his hateful little corner of the Internet. Fox News, he knew, would unwrap it like a longed-for Christmas present and move it quickly into heavy rotation on its calliope of racial resentment. Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity would bellow their indignation. Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio hosts would spend hours plumbing the depths of this latest outrage against oppressed white people. And within a day or two, the story would slither its way up the media ladder to the broadcast networks and major newspapers.
Breitbart knew it, because even before Barack Obama took office, the most venomous voices on the right were telling white voters that this man preaching understanding and reconciliation was conning them, hiding his inner Huey Newton, inevitably to unleash the fury of black rage upon them. And not just him -- his wife, too. Remember how conservatives spread the false rumor that Michelle Obama had once referred to "whitey" in a speech? Remember how they tried to use her college thesis to prove she was a black nationalist? Remember how National Review put a picture of her looking angry on its cover, under the headline "Mrs. Grievance"?
Despite the fact that there is no subject the White House would like to talk about less than race, it has become a positive obsession for some on the right. When Glenn Beck, the conservative media star of our time, said that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred of white people," it was only his most-publicized foray into race-baiting; it's actually a regular feature of his rhetoric, which includes lots of talk of "reparations" -- taking money from white people to give to black people. "Have we suddenly transported into 1956, except it's the other way around?" Beck recently asked. "Does anybody else have a sense that there are some that just want revenge?"
Reparations is a major theme these days for Rush Limbaugh, too, with every Democratic program he doesn't like characterized as an effort to stick it to white folks. He tells his listeners that "Obama's entire economic program is reparations." It makes sense, because as Limbaugh had told them before, "the days of [minorities] not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That's what Obama's about, gang."
Beck and Limbaugh may be the two loudest voices, but it comes from multiple directions, including media bottom-feeders like Andrew Breitbart. Look at the controversies that have animated them since Obama took office: Van Jones, ACORN, Sonia Sotomayor's alleged animosity toward white people, the phony New Black Panther voter intimidation story -- and next month there will probably be another. In every case, the message to whites is the same: You are the victim. You are not the racist -- they are the racists, and you are the victim of their racism. You are the oppressed, the held down, the kept back. If you see a black person or a Hispanic get a position of power, you'd better watch out, because they'll be coming for you.
To be clear, what I'm talking about here isn't racism, it's race-baiting. For all I know, Breitbart is positively bursting with love for all humanity. But what we can say for sure is that he is a professional race-baiter, just like Beck and Limbaugh. What they are inside is unknowable and irrelevant; it's what they do that is so vile.
There are no doubt many Republicans of good will who are made sick by the racial poison their ideological comrades pour into our national bloodstream. Perhaps some will be able to do what George H.W. Bush could not 22 years ago: say to those who come forward with the latest bit of race-baiting, "No. We will not do this. I know it works, and I know it may help us politically. But it demeans us and harms this country we always say we love so much. It is wrong. And we will not do it."
There may be Republicans who have said just that in private; I certainly hope so. But until they do so in public, we will find ourselves pulled onto this treadmill of resentment and hate again and again. Yes, in the Shirley Sherrod case, the media were credulous, the administration was cowardly, and no one came out looking good (except Sherrod herself). But the only ones with any real power to stop the next bit of noxious race-baiting are prominent Republicans themselves; their voices will carry much more weight than any others. If they can muster the courage.