The Sherrod case is an apt example. As you may recall, this sad tale began when the late Breitbart hyped a maliciously edited video of a speech she made at an NAACP gathering in Georgia. Sherrod seemed to be telling how she had discriminated against a white farmer. In the full version, we’d learn, she was instead offering a heartwarming account of how she overcame her historical racial grievances to help a white farmer out. That the rabid Breitbart would tar Sherrod was no surprise. That some in the mainstream press would recycle his libel without vetting it is, sadly, par for the course. But that the NAACP would also pile on, condemning Sherrod as “shameful” without even checking the record of an event it had sponsored, was nuts. So was the cowardly behavior of Tom Vilsack, the white secretary of Agriculture, who in a panic immediately forced Sherrod’s resignation, with the knowledge and tacit approval of the Obama White House.
What Breitbart understood was that the election of an African-American president has thrown white and black liberals on the defensive. The NAACP and Vilsack were so eager to appear color-blind in the new “post-racial” America that they would rather sell Sherrod out than wait for any facts that might alter the story. Once it became clear to Obama that his own camp had been snookered, he apologized to her and called for a discussion of race that “needs to take place not on cable TV, not just through a bunch of academic symposia or fancy commissions or panels, not through political posturing, but around kitchen tables, and water coolers, and church basements, and in our schools.” Whatever. There was no discussion of how the NAACP, the White House, and a Cabinet department were so easily enlisted in Breitbart’s assault on Sherrod in the first place. There were no repercussions for Vilsack, who remains in his sinecure today.
Breitbart, of course, isn’t the only one to wield a maliciously edited recording to serve a racial animus; his legacy is that he helped solidify an Obama-era trend. NBC News would do the same in the Trayvon Martin case, airing an audio recording on the Today show in which George Zimmerman seemed to profile his victim as black to a police dispatcher when in fact he was only responding to the dispatcher’s direct question (edited out by NBC). On the right, a website founded by the conservative pundit Michelle Malkin tried to stack the deck against Trayvon by posting a defamatory, racially stereotyped photo portrait that turned out to be of a different young black man. In a category of his own was Spike Lee, who tweeted an address he thought was Zimmerman’s to some 250,000 followers. How he wanted others to act on this information was unspecified, but in any event, the address actually belonged to an innocent white couple in their seventies who were forced to flee their home to escape a torrent of death threats and other harrassments. (Lee ultimately did the right thing, apologizing and agreeing to compensate them.)
Like the Sherrod incident, the Martin killing made almost everyone who touched it look bad, not just the derelict Floridian officials in proximity. The so-called liberal national media didn’t report on the case until three weeks after it happened. Once they started playing catchup, reporters and commentators alike flew into a tizzy trying to figure out how to shoehorn Zimmerman’s Hispanic ethnicity into the rigid black-vs.-white racial grid the narrative demanded. Conservative pundits tried to drown out the Martin tragedy altogether (and the role played by weak gun control and “stand your ground” laws in abetting it) by complaining vociferously that the mainstream press and black leaders habitually ignore America’s epidemic of black-on-black violence. For good measure, the original story was further muddied by debates over whether it was out of line for Obama to say he could have had a son who looked like Trayvon, whether hoodies should be banned (not for Mark Zuckerberg, apparently), and whether the Times was right to identify Zimmerman as a “white Hispanic” instead of simply a Hispanic. If there ever is justice in this case, which there may well not be, it will hardly be looked back on as a clarifying episode in the story of America’s struggle with race.
The Trayvon Martin mêlée, at least, was about something grave at its core: An unarmed 17-year-old boy had been killed, and law enforcement had failed to act. What was the Herman Cain presidential campaign about? As an indicator of present-day racial disingenuousness in America, this brief but delicious saga is hard to top. It’s the one recent national farce that delivers comedy as well as substance to match that of Clybourne Park. It offers something to embarrass everyone.