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Tea Party racism, Shirley Sherrod, New Black Panthers, NAACP and more on race in America -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

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Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; 1:00 PM

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone. Weelcome to our weekly session. Many moving parts today, as always -- the Kagan nomination moving out of committee, the new British prime minister in town, the cap holding on the oil well. The column this morning was about the Tea Party, the NAACP and racism. Let's begin.

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Today's column: I think you handled this racism/tea party issue quite well today. But from what I've read, until this latest TP Express outburst, the rhetoric was less pointed. The primary defense of the TP movement has been that it is made up of a lot of people and it is unfair to characterize an entire movement from the statements of a few. How does one deal with that?

Eugene Robinson: The Tea Party movement wants to be taken seriously as a political force. In today's America, to be taken seriously in that way requires a zero-tolerance policy for racist rhetoric or imagery. Jeremiah Wright was unacceptable, and so is Mark Williams.

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Bachmann and the Congressional Tea Party Caucus: The GOP has kept the flank of the Tea Party at arms length but still tacitly approves of their rhetoric and their behavior. Now that Rep. Bachmann (R-MN) is establishing a House Tea Party caucus how can the GOP ignore the Tea Party before the next election? Must they reject the caucus or will they be able to claim indifference and offend a big part of their base? Are moderate Republicans getting painted into a corner?

Eugene Robinson: The Republican Party is going to have a lot to figure out. My guess is that the Tea Party caucus is not going to toe the party line. At the same time, there's a chance that the ranks of moderate Republicans in Congress might actually increase this year, for a change. So the leadership, which is basically bedrock-conservative, will have outlying groups on both sides to deal with.

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Palin and Racism: First, I want to thank you Mr. Robinson for writing a very honest, succinct and necessary piece about the recent "calling out" of the Tea Party regarding racists in their midst. My question: you are aware I'm sure that Sarah Palin called the NAACP's statement regarding racism in the Tea Party ranks "divisive." Interesting comment, given the divisive nature of her own rhetoric. Your comments?

Eugene Robinson: I think Palin should immediately "refudiate" that remark.

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Satire?: Was the Mark Williams defense of his letter to Lincoln - "it's satire" - the most ridiculous part of the whole incident? Where did satire come into play? He basically said all blacks are lazy leeches waiting to get their welfare so they can buy flat screen TVs. He also argues that blacks would be better off as slaves than free people? You're a professional writer, perhaps you can tell me and millions of others what part of that screed is satirical? Also, why do you think Mitch McConnell is afraid to condemn such blatant racism? Is he afraid of alienating some of his voters in Kentucky who agree with Mark Williams?

Eugene Robinson: Sen. McConnell can speak for himself, if he chooses. And I saw nothing remotely satirical in Williams' screed.

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Black Panthers and tea party beliefs: Why doesn't the NAACP condemn the racist comments made by the Black Panthers? I have been to tea party rallies and have never seen anything racist. People are concerned about the large amounts of taxes they pay, and the fact that their voice is not heard. I wondered why there was no one speaking out against this injustice years ago. Why are you and the NAACP not supporting this cause?

Eugene Robinson: Personally, I'd enthusiastically condemn racist comments by Black Panthers to their face, if I could find any. There are, like, maybe a dozen of these goofs, as far as I can tell. And I don't enjoy paying taxes any more than you do -- but I do want to have a government, and I realize that it has to be paid for somehow.

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New Black Panthers: After reading the comments in response to your column I was shocked to find that almost overnight, and behind everyone's back, the New Black Panthers have evidently set up chapters everywhere in America! I was also dismayed to find that many who left a comment saw nothing racist in Mark William's "letter." Houston, we've got problem.

Eugene Robinson: Panthers, Panthers, everywhere. Or somewhere. Actually, nowhere. Has anyone actually seen these alleged New Black Panthers? I mean, be honest.

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The Tea Party and Race: I usually do not agree with you and often feel you overplay the race card. but in this instance i could not agree with you more. the tea party seems to attract fringe and radical portions of the right wing including racists and hatemongers. they like to hide behind a veil of (not-so) plausible deniability. they play it very coy. but the latest move by the naacp forced their hand. the mere fact that they felt they had to address it confirms for me that they are aware that a (large) part of their constituency is racist.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks, but I disagree in one sense: I think that the fact that the umbrella "federation" Tea Party group took action to address the issue is a hopeful sign. I think it means that there are elements of the movement that want to play a constructive role.

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Racism: Don't you think the starting place for a discussion of racism is to admit the fact that EVERYONE is racist? We have all grown up in a racist, sexist, homophobic etc. culture and all of us must struggle with it. The starting place is individual and personal. Asking ourselves "why do I feel that way?" That's how change happens.

Eugene Robinson: That's true, at least to some extent. But some are more racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. than others, no?

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Shirley Sherrod. : Are you going to cover this incident or is it acceptable to be a black racist?USDA worker quits over racism charge

Eugene Robinson: I think the story that you appended is called "coverage." What she did was wrong and unacceptable. Next question.

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Is the Messenger the Message?: Dave Chapelle uses the N-word and it's satire. Mel Gibson does and it's racist. (Apologies to Whoopi.) Mel Brooks does "Springtime for Hitler", people laugh. Hitler does it - not so much. "Double standard" or not, that's just the way it is. But, could you please address this directly? What Mark WIlliams wrote could well have appeared in The Onion - and people with different political views would have laughed. How does one deal intelligently with the notion that, sometimes, The Messenger IS the Message?

Eugene Robinson: It's true that Dave Chappelle can -- or, at least, used to -- use words that Mel Gibson can't. That's something people will just have to deal with. But the Williams "satire" could never have run in the Onion, because there was nothing funny about it. Rule of thumb: There's nothing funny about slavery, there's nothing funny about the Holocaust, and the only person who can make Hitler funny is Mel Brooks.

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New Black Panthers = ACORN = SEIU = Rev. Wright = Mark Ayers = etc.: The rightwingnuts need boogeymen (preferably of color) and the New Black Panthers fill the role nicely:1. The word "black" is right there in the name2. The name hearkens back to an actual violent group many tea partiers undoubtedly remember well. It's irrelevant that the current group is a small bunch of clowns.

Eugene Robinson: Exactly. But it's insane -- literally insane -- that there are probably folks out there who seriously believe that these imaginary New Black Panthers are real. It's a perfect paranoid fantasy.

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Racial Equivalency: One of the things that bothers me about this whole debate is the notion that the New Black Panther Party is equivalent to the tea party and that the recent revelation that a black USDA employee didn't help a white farmer 24 years ago is somehow equialent to the decades of discrimination against black farmers. This isn't even appleas and oranges; it's more like grains of sand against mountains.There also seems to be a touch of "you do it" so we can do it.

Eugene Robinson: There's a LOT of "you do it, so why can't we?" But a few clowns in retro-1970s Panther outfits aren't the same thing as a movement that organizes big demonstrations and elects candidates around the country. And one bureaucrat who does something deplorable isn't the same thing as centuries of legalized, institutional racism. Just not the same at all.

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Shirley Sherrod: Your response on Shirley Sherrod is a good example of how things get different weight. You say what she did was wrong. But will you write several columns about her, like you have done with Republicans? It's hard not to see your efforts on race as being titled toward being very aggressive with Republicans, and nearly indifferent toward Democrats. Any response there?

Eugene Robinson: No, I won't write several columns about her, because she's one person who did something that was clearly wrong. A political movement that mobilizes millions of people is quite different.

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SHIRLEY SHERROD update: EUGENE ROBINSON WRITES:I think the story that you appended is called "coverage." What she did was wrong and unacceptable. Next question.Me:CNN is now reporting that the video and story was manufactured by the same folks that manufactured the ACORN pimp story.I would be careful before jumping on the what she did was wrong bandwagon, Eugene.

Eugene Robinson: I hadn't seen that report, but I'll tune in after the chat. The ACORN pimp story was only half-true at best, in that the faux pimp got thrown out of some ACORN offices (but those encounters weren't shown). Of course, that doesn't justify the half that was true. But we do need all the facts.

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My God! I just saw your answer to a Shirley Sherrod question! She's being framed!: Does the TRUTH still mater to so-called "real" journalist anymore? The ENTIRE tape shows she was recounting an incident where she allowed race to intrude on her decision making, but soon realized the error of her ways and helped the WHITE farmer for 2 years and became friends with him and his wife. His wife just called into CNN and said she's telling the truth!!!

Eugene Robinson: Like I said, I'll check it out after the chat. Can't watch and type at the same time. But I urge readers to take a look and make their own judgment as well.

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Isn't its "whiteness" a large part of TP's appeal?: Just what is the Tea Party? No central organization, really. No platform. Just a vague sort of anti-government, anti-alien, anti-tax, anti-progressive and, more than anything else, anti-Obama "movement" populated overwhelmingly by middle-aged and older white people. Race is at the heart of the TP. Remove that, and you remove a major part of its appeal. No?

Eugene Robinson: I don't know, but I strongly doubt it's that simple. The Tea Party movement, I believe, does have motivations other than race. In other words, if you took race totally out of the picture, I think you'd still have an upwelling of antigovernment anger. But the sources of that anger don't add up to a conherent philosophy, or at least not yet.

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How to respond: I have relatives who buy into the whole Sarah Palin/Tea Party/racist/homophobic rhetoric. Whenever I try to engage them in serious discussion about the issues, I get nowhere. In the end I just shake my head in disbelief and walk away. Do you have any ideas about how to engage these folks and get them to take political discussion seriously?

Eugene Robinson: Not really. I just write my little columns and throw them out there, but I don't get to decide how people react to them. I wish I did...

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reverse racism?: I'm generally not a big fan of yours Eugene but I do find your op-eds worth reading sometimes, if only for a chuckle. My question to you is this: Does it seem racist to you that there is a blacks-only TV network, blacks-only award shows, blacks-only Education funds, etc? I'm of mixed race so honestly I couldn't care less about race relations, but c'mon man: is discrimination by a group of historically discriminated-against individuals racist?

Eugene Robinson: Well, obviously there's no discrimination in BET or the NAACP Image Awards, because anybody can watch or join, regardless of race. By "education funds" you're referring to affirmative action, I gather, and you succinctly state the reason for it: historical discrimination. I think some forms of affirmative action are still needed.

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Avenue Q was right: Everyone's a little bit racist

Eugene Robinson: That song qualifies as satire. Mark Williams' rant does not.

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Amorphous party: Gene, how can an alleged organization like the Tea Party, which prides itself on having no national leaders and operating almost like an autonomous colletive, kick anyone or group out ?

Eugene Robinson: That's a very good question, as you'll see from the back-and-forth today among Tea Party faction about who does or does not have the right to decide who belongs. This is the kind of thing that will have to be sorted out, because if Mark Williams is the face of the "Tea Party," then the "Tea Party" is racist. Pure and simple.

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Alleged NBP?: Do you really believe that, Gene? Do you REALLY think that it's some kind of false flag GOP campaign, that these people don't exist, and all the soundbites about 'killing crackers and cracker babies' were just made up? Really?

Eugene Robinson: Yes, REALLY, I think this is a "group" whose membership may or may not reach into double digits. REALLY.

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"Black Panthers" vs Tea Partiers: Aside from numbers the main difference between Tea Party racists amd "Black Panthers" is that while there is ZERO support for the "Black Panthers" among elected Democrats there is both support and tacit approval of racist elements in the Tea Party by elected Republicans.Show me one elected Democrat who has voiced sympathy for the "Black Panthers", or Code Pink for that matter.Didn't think so.The numbers hardly stack up against the hundreds of elected Republicans who not only support the Tea Party but implicitly countenance their racism.

Eugene Robinson: That's true. And it's also true that there aren't any New Black Panthers worth talking about.

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In response to "reverse racism?": I always hear things like "why isn't there a WHITE Entertainment Television" or "White History Month"? Well, there are. In the first, there's CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS and Fox, and that's just over the air. As for White History Month, there's 11 of those. (And by the way, I'm Jewish, so I know what it's like to be in a minority status.)

Eugene Robinson: Yes, and he White Congressional Caucus used to be called, well, Congress. Don't worry, in a few years there won't be a majority, just a bunch of minorities, whites included.

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Take our Country Back!: For the past year or so we've heard Tea Party members cry that they want to 'take our country back'. I've never heard them say from whom they will take it back but is there any doubt that most of them mean to take it back from people of color? Even in this chat today you've had multiple questions about ridiculous reverse racism charges. I think a driving factor in all of this is the fear among some groups that someone else is getting something unfairly and they're not.

Eugene Robinson: Yes, in all seriousness, I do think there's a lot of fear out there. I wish it weren't so.Folks, my time is up for today. Hope we managed to shed more light than heat on an already overheated topic. See you again next week!


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