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Race in America: A Hot Mess

NAACP President Benjamin Jealous calls on the Tea Party to disavow itself of the racist elements within its ranks. Sarah Palin fires back, calling the NAACP a "racist organization." She also creates a new word, "refudiate," which, up until then, had probably never been used in the New York Times. Then someone fires back with video of U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod's speech from an NAACP fundraiser taken out of context. The Secretary of Agriculture overreacts, fires Sherrod, only to find out later that the video had been edited and that Ms. Sherrod's message was not racist, but reconciling. And throughout, Ms. Sherrod maintains her cool, is later offered a better job at the Department of Agriculture, and receives a well-deserved apology from President Obama himself.

Then this morning I listen to Dean Christopher Edley of the Boalt Hall School of Law and John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute on CNN state that these shenanigans did not involve racism. Race, but not racism.

Indeed.

When it comes to dealing with issues of race, America is, in the oft-used words of Niecy Nash, "a hot mess." We can't seem to have an open and honest dialogue about racism and race without resorting to name-calling and sound bites. I don't think it would even be safe to have a Clinton-esque "Town Hall Meeting on Race" because, give the hodge-podge of concealed weapons laws around the country, you don't know who could be packing heat at one of the meetings. It's that much of a hot-button issue.

As to the Tea Party members, I actually know and like a lot of Tea Partyers. I admire that, unlike most Americans, they feel so strongly about what they believe in that they're willing to coalesce and become a vehicle for political action. That said, I believe Congressman John Lewis when he said he was called the "N-word" by people protesting with the Tea Party against health care reform. I saw the video of Congressman Lewis being spat on as he crossed the street to vote. I also remember watching Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" dismiss those who spewed racial epithets and spit on black members of Congress as being on the fringe without going so far as to condem what they said or were purported to have said.

How hard is it for any organization to condemn racism and the racists hiding behind the umbrella of that organization? Why is that so hard to agree on?

That said, I doubt Shirley Sherrod would have been shown the door so quickly if she had been white and her words had been similarly misconstrued to have been anti-black. I doubt the Japanese American Citizens League would have been called "a racist organization" had it called the Tea Party on racist elements within the Tea Party.

Whenever black people, or black organizations, raise their voices to call out racism, there seems to be this furious backlash as if to say we have no standing to speak of the racism we've heard and seen with our own eyes, as if we are inherently unreliable witnesses when it comes to calling out racism simply because we are black and, in the minds of many, inherently racists ourselves.

For Dean Edley and John McWhorter's edification, the racism in all this was that a conservative edited Ms. Sherrod's speech to make the NAACP look like racial hypocrites and show the NAACP as an inherently unreliable witness when it comes to calling out racism. That's not political; it's racist.

If Ms. Palin is as certain of her accusation as she appears to be, I would hope she'd have the courage to attend an NAACP convention and make that same accusation and back it up with facts.

As for African Americans, my hope is that, as a people, we redouble our efforts to not only stand up and call out racism when we see it, but that we also do what we can to insulate ourselves and our children from it. We need to strengthen our institutions -- organizations, colleges, you name it -- as well as ourselves -- with greater educational achievement, entrepreneurial growth, and economic independence -- so that we're relatively unaffected by the slings and arrows of racists, and racist elements, in positions of power.

A good start might be actually joining the NAACP, and putting Shirley Sherrod in charge of it.

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