The ‘Reverse Racism’ Police, Part I

By Emily Theroux

Barack Obama

The night America celebrated the election of the first African-American president in history, no one really imagined what Barack Obama’s opponents – the ones who took his victory as an affront to truth, justice, and the American way – were capable of.

For many Republicans, the sting of defeat and the political imperative of surrendering the executive branch to another “Democrat” administration were reason enough to begin scheming in earnest to regain power. For others, however, the collective recoil of the right from Obama’s election signified something more visceral. The mere fact of the new president’s race was an affront that people inclined to mistrust or malign minorities couldn’t abide.

Obama the first black president would soon live with the first black family in “the people’s house” – the American version of a palace, whose occupants had always resembled the now-ebbing white majority. The ugly legacy of racial animus bubbled up from hibernation, to remain just beneath the surface of the national dialogue.

By 2010, it had coalesced into an obsessive goal – not for all conservatives, certainly, but for the white supremacists in their midst. Of utmost importance to both the biased politicians who wouldn’t come right out and say it and the very vocal portion of the populace who would: getting the black guy out of the White House (only the racist signs and posters and websites didn’t couch that sentiment in such bland terms, with all the banality of evil even the milder words convey).

Reince Priebus

As Reince Priebus, chairman of the RNC, demagogued the issue’s urgency the other day in apparent racial code that would have done Scarlett O’Hara proud: “We have to put an end to this Barack Obama presidency before it puts an end to ‘our way of life’.” (That expression, once widely employed in the antebellum South, is a paradigm of dog-whistle politics: It’s too high-pitched for human ears, but them good-ole-boy redbone coonhounds can hear it a mile away.)


Beck calls Obama a racist, and the floodgates open

Glenn Beck, the zookeeper at Wingnut World, played the “reverse racism” card against Obama early on, inexplicably calling a biracial man raised by his white mother and grandparents “a racist” with “a deep-seated hatred of white people and the white culture.” The right seized on it, venting their post-election fury by attacking a succession of black “proxies” for the then-Illinois senator who dared to attempt “running for president while black” – and soundly beat them.

Andrew Breitbart

First, congressmen and talk-show hosts scapegoated ACORN, sabotaging an organization devoted primarily to registering minority voters. Later, far-right bloggers targeted Van Jones, the president’s “Green Jobs” czar, and smeared Shirley Sherrod, an employee of the Department of Agriculture whose remarks about helping a white farmer were distorted by “creative” videotape editing to make her look like a racist.

The attack dogs’ fearless leader, Drudge Report protege Andrew Breitbart, purportedly “died of hostility” (as Robert Wright of The Atlantic suggested) on March 1 at the age of 43, yet was survived by a cadre of fanatic “Breitbots” dedicated to carrying out his mission here on earth.


White-balling’ (reverse racism) vs. the media

Currently in the Breitbart scandal machine’s sights are members of the mainstream media or progressive blogosphere who dare to venture into “white-balling” territory. (That’s what I call the mythic “blackballing of white people” that the right wing calls 21st-century “reverse racism,” otherwise defined as any utterance, however non-judgmental, that causes white people to imagine that black people could possibly blame them or their ancestors in some way for Dred Scott, “whites only” water fountains, high-rise public housing projects, stop-and-frisk, Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima, America’s 70 percent non-white prison population, voter ID, or racial slurs, about the very worst of which – according to “Chris,” author of  the incisive and funny blog, “Stuff Black People Hate” – doofy white guys named Chad in too-tight pink polo shirts will ask you why, if black people can say the most awful word in the English language, they can’t.)

Joe Williams

The story of how the Breitbart bloggers brought down Joe Williams – the first black editor to be hired by the DC print/online enterprise Politico, in the wake of its confrontation by the National Association of Black Journalists because of a noticeable dearth of diversity in its newsroom – is instructive.

Joe Williams, according to Politico’s website, is “a veteran political journalist and telegenic analyst” whose credentials include a 1996 Nieman Fellowship at Harvard and a solid 28-year career in newspaper reporting and editing, magazine writing, and newsroom management. As deputy chief of the Boston Globe’s Washington Bureau, he covered the 2008 presidential campaign and Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Politico hired him in June 2010 as deputy White House editor but, less than a year later, reassigned him to a reporter’s job – that of White House correspondent, “specializing in the intersection of race and politics,” according to Tracie Powell of the Poynter Institute.

The move (which Powell didn’t characterize as a demotion) gave Williams an opportunity to develop his broadcast skills while providing Politico with onscreen “proof ” of its diversity – yet his editor’s job went to a white female editor who still holds the position, so Politico’s management ranks are once again no more racially diverse than they were before Williams was hired.

“They said they wanted me as a reporter, which would get me closer to the action so that I could describe some of the things I would talk about on TV with more authority,” Williams told Powell. “They said I was good at it.” Williams’ supervisors also pointed him in the direction of cable news programs, many of which express a viewpoint, so Politico’s honchos can’t say they expected a correspondent stationed at the vortex of race and politics, during an election year this volatile, to appear on cable opinion shows and then clam up on the subject of race.


Romney ‘very, very comfortable’ with people like him

Joe Williams was indeed good at his job. I watched him frequently on cable news programs like Martin Bashir’s afternoon talk show on MSNBC, and Williams was thoughtful, knowledgeable about the presidential race, and insightful about the issues. Then one day in June, he appeared on Bashir’s program, gave a candid answer to a simple question, and returned to the office to find his life turned inside out.

Mitt Romney

Bashir had asked him why he thought Mitt Romney appeared so often on Fox News while avoiding network TV and other cable stations. “Romney is very, very comfortable, it seems, with people who are like him,” Williams replied. “That’s one of the reasons why he seems so stiff and awkward in town hall settings, why he can’t relate to people other than that. But when he comes on ‘Fox and Friends,’ they’re like him. They’re white folks who are very much relaxed in their own company.”

When Williams mentioned people who aren’t like Romney, he was referring to class differences (between Romney and white, conservative town hall attendees, or waitresses at a diner he visited, or the “hoi-polloi” in plastic rain ponchos at a NASCAR event), not racial differences. But by that time, it didn’t make any difference. Sharp ears at The Washington Free Beacon and pricked up when Joe Williams said “white folks,” and that seemingly innocuous expression was all they needed to hear. The “Reverse Racism Police” were off in their squad cars, sirens blaring, to bag another hapless suspect.

The bloggers blogged their inevitable tale of Joe Williams’ racist smear against Mitt Romney and perfidy against Politico, throwing in a few “raunchy” tweets they came across while trawling through the reporter’s virtual baggage. They dug up dirt about his personal life. And sure enough, they scored a bulls-eye: before the week was out, Politico had suspended its most conspicuous “diversity” hire.

Except for the fact that Joe Williams is not an employment statistic, a demographic profile, a notch in someone’s belt, or an object lesson in the pitfalls of political coverage. He’s a human being, not a scalp taken by vicious partisans with an ideology to flog.

Next week: Part II, “Reverse Racism and False Equivalency”

Tags: , , , , , ,

4 Responses to “The ‘Reverse Racism’ Police, Part I”

  1. Michael Kaufman Says:

    Great post, Emily…..deserving of wide circulation. I look forward to reading Part 2 next week.

  2. Emily Theroux Says:

    Thanks, Michael! I’m still working on it – and hoping something positive happens for Mr. Williams on the job front. It’s hard to believe that this kind of thing could happen to someone with almost 30 years in journalism. It feels like we’ve gone back to the pre-civil rights era (a time that it still makes me ill to recall living through in Louisiana, even though the only “danger” I was in, as a white child at the age of 8 or 10, was from being on the receiving end of hideous, race-baiting phone calls intended for my father, an outspoken liberal college professor). The difference is that now, the haters are using written words instead of muttered threats or actual violence to do their dirty work.

  3. Jean Webster Says:

    Good piece, Emily.

    But, I am not surprised that this could happen to a 30 year news veteran – not surprised at all. I feel that there’s a real backlash in this country – women should be put back in “their place,” and blacks can’t say things like “white folks” plus more, I’m sure. Putting a black man in the “white” house has certainly brought out the bigots and haters. Talking about it is bringing forth the ones hiding in woods and back roads of America. We have a lot of work to do.

    Please keep up your work. We need outspoken people like you.
    Jean Webster

  4. Emily Theroux Says:

    Thank you so much, Jean. I guess I always have been outspoken, but it’s a lot easier for me to speak out than it was for Joe Williams. Should anything I say or write happen to be noticed by the right-wing “censors” (which I suppose could happen if any of them happened to do a Google search on Joe Williams), I have nothing to lose – unlike Williams, Shirley Sherrod, or even white columnist Joan Walsh, whom I plan to include in this week’s column.

    So I’ll add this note to In the unlikely case that I should come up next on your list, you can’t get me fired (I’m unemployed) or claim I beat my wife (I don’t have one). So fire at will at my “reputation.” Use whichever version you choose of the following nonsense: that I am a “white reverse racist against white people” or a “traitor to my race” for a) pointing out, as Walsh did, that Republicans in 2012 tend to be older white people, without drawing any inference from that statistically supported fact; or for b) enumerating the ways in which white racists have historically used the power structure of the dominant white culture to enslave, exploit, brutalize, segregate, disempower, impoverish, intimidate, humiliate, and dehumanize African-Americans – a systematic form of oppression and marginalization that so-called black “reverse racists” cannot possibly visit upon white people.

Leave a Reply