No one ever presumed that both our history with race in America and any and all contemporary problems related to race would magically disappear following the election of our first African American President. But I doubt that most of us anticipated that race would then become a readily-brandished stealth tool of the political right and more specifically a weaponized toxin for spraying Democrats. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but these new “issues” seemingly related to race often have a life cycle that can begin, blossom and then disappear with a whimper in less than a week.
While it was really more of a watershed moment for the dubious veracity of the Internet, the Shirley Sherrod “racist video” story played like a new format for reality TV where an entire series premiered and had its season finale all in less than a week. Video appears to indict USDA official, official resigns, authenticity of edited video comes into question, White House gets in there… apologies and new job offers ensue. And then in the coda, the real bad guys are revealed.
However you want to read the details of the Sherrod mini series, what is clear is that race and the race card—a term leftover from another cycle of events—were deployed like one of those playing cards that magician Ricky Jay can toss into a wall like a Ninja throwing star. Cue whirring noise, then the ‘ching’ sound of the card finding purchase in the wall map of America. And suddenly we’re forced to open up a bunch of unpleasantness for no specific reason except that the right’s Team Distraction is completely without a better idea for what to do with its summer free time.
The cynical plotting and lying that gave birth to the Sherrod event indicate that getting over our hot-button reaction to race as a means of defending ourselves from cheap tricks is a job being left up to us. And our track record on being thoughtful and reflective when we’re attacked with a forgery like the edited Sherrod video isn’t very good. Those of a certain generation will remember the damage done to the presidential campaign of Edmund Muskie in 1972 by a poorly forged letter to a newspaper alleging that a Muskie staffer had used the word “Canucks” as a reference to Americans of French-Canadian descent. The Sherrod event included some breathtaking lapses of responsibility and rushes to judgment, but none of it looked to provoke war with Canada.
Staying on our toes as a defensive measure against a sucker-punch from something like the Sherrod video has absolutely nothing to do with decreasing our sensitivity or becoming fatigued with real issues related to race. I suspect that we’re in a new hybrid phase of being baited by things like this, one that has plenty to do with a TV news gathering ethos that’s comfortable with feeding off the Internet as a means of obtaining content cheaply. TV now goes to the Net for stories with buzz and electricity, and simultaneously refuses to do any homework verifying the facts with the excuse that TV is merely reporting someone else’s reporting. I’m not Merriam-Webster, but isn’t that a definition of gossip?
We live in a time where the audio recordings of Mel Gibson’s frothing are played on tiny phone/Internet radios if you will like this week’s hit song. “Have you heard this?” a friend inquires, then spins this week’s ‘hit’. Phenomena like that suggest to me that we’re all done pretending there will ever be any gate keeping by organizations profiting from the circulation of… well, anything. It’s not a new idea that it falls to us to provide the scrutiny corporate content distributors are now too lazy and cheap to provide, but the Sherrod cycle from last week clearly demonstrates the need.
While the headline of a July 25 New York Times article suggested that for politicians a race issue is often “Still Too Hot to Touch,” popular culture embraces a sensibility that race is now a pliable and facile element that can be utilized or incorporated as needed the way themes and symbols are mixed and remixed in a music video. Popcorn movie with banal racial riffing between the white and black buddy cops? No problem. That’s comedy. America is so over all that sensitivity. Sherrod speech video? First she’s fired, then the truth about the tape comes out, then please will she take another job… then the President of the United States calls her on the phone. Too hot to handle or too hot not to handle; where are we here?
We’re in a place where the election by popular vote of a smart and tough President has so thwarted those against him that they are resorting to libel to set off our smoke alarms. Can they do real damage? Part of us needs to believe that political and social progress can never go backwards. Then you hear that somebody is floating Jeb Bush for President and you stare at your wristwatch for twenty minutes just to confirm that the hands are indeed turning clockwise.
Corporate media had to be seduced by an edited Internet video smear before they circulated Shirley Shirrod’s impressive real-life story which includes her father being shot and killed by a white man in a dispute over cows, Sherrod herself being one of the first black students to integrate a high school in rural Georgia, and the fact that like many of the farmers she helped during her work for a non-profit organization she and her husband lost a group farm to bankruptcy. But it’s tough to get that kind of true, honest material covered when you’ve got everybody on staff surfing the web for the next puff of smoke.