How Breitbart Won — and Why We Must Rethink “Racism”

The lesson of Shirley Sherrod is we must stop talking about racism as a personality problem.

By Rinku Sen Jul 23, 2010

We’ve trod a familiar path in the past week. It started with credulous acceptance of Andrew Breitbart’s latest round of lies, moved to the subsequent debate about who’s a racist and then on to the expected round of apologies. Now it culminates with calls for Obama to lead a national racial healing project. This is just the road the right wants us traveling along, because it leads nowhere.

Everybody from President Obama to Glenn Back has offered a lesson to be learned from the frenzy surrounding Shirley Sherrod. But just about all of them have reinforced the notion that racism is nothing more than personal prejudice, as plausibly found among blacks as it is among whites. In that, Breitbart has succeeded in shaping our conversation about race.

What the right wants us to forget is that race relations are rooted in systems, and that not all racism is individual, intentional and overt. Individual bias plays a role, to be sure, but it’s the institutional rules, written and unwritten, that enable such racism, not the other way around. You can’t "heal" a system; you have to rebuild it.

This is where the left often loses its way on race. I was surprised, for instance, to read the following in Joan Walsh’s column on Wednesday: "People are spending a lot of energy to get folks like the Spooners and Sherrod to think they should be enemies, when the real issue is class." Walsh, who has a solid history of responsible reporting on race issues, goes on to say that’s what the left should remember from this debacle, because the right wants us to forget it.

I take the opposite lesson: The intersection of race and class is a complicated thing, deserving of more attention, not less. Treating class as the "real issue" means treating race only as a function of it, which amounts to colorblindness for leftists. It’s a highly limited answer to working-class white resentment of working-class black people. Progressives’ over-reliance on the "same boat" argument doesn’t help keep multiracial alliances together. Rather, it stumps us when we need to explain exactly how racism works, not just in the economy, but also in education, prison, health and, yes, agriculture. Liberal silence on race is what allows Breitbart to distort the definition of racism, to strip it of all discussions of power, history, policy or collective responsibility such that the notion of reverse racism has enough merit to be taken seriously in the first place.

There was a lot of bad to this situation, and apologies are definitely appropriate. But setting up competing points of focus between personal prejudice and class indicates to me that leftists–and not just white leftists–think of classism as systemic but racism as individual. The depth and consistency of racial disparities in every arena, even when well-intentioned people make and implement the rules, suggests that individual intention is only a small part of this story. The left understands that about class, so why not about race? When was the last time we heard progressives call for projects that heal the class divide? No, on class we get it.

There’s much to gain from getting it. In my book The Accidental American, I wrote about the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), which has expanded nationwide. In the aftermath of September 11, the group organized immigrant workers of color who occupy the low-wage, dangerous back-of-the-house jobs in high-end restaurants. Five years later, when white waiters asked for help because managers were stealing their tips, ROC-NY had its own Shirley Sherrod moment of hesitation.

Rather than turning the white workers away, however, organizers insisted that they reach out to the back-of-the-house. Together, they won ROC-NY’s biggest victory to date–millions of dollars in back wages and damages, and a whole lot of new rules, including some addressing racial discrimination explicitly. The organization successfully addresses the economic, racial and gender hierarchies embedded in the industry, even though everyone doesn’t occupy the same rung on the ladder. That’s what real solidarity looks like.

Both the Obama administration and news media should be looking for the same sort of systemic, rather than interpersonal, review–like, say, a thorough racial impact assessment of federal regulations, practices and proposals. When we focus on all the things that cause inequality, true reconciliation can begin. Otherwise, it’s just talk therapy.

*Creative Commons/The US Department of Agriculture*