Shirley Sherrod Walked into a Live Minefield: Conservative Myths About Race and Racism in America

The Shirley Sherrod affair made me think a lot about some powerful myths – historical and contemporary – about race and racism in America.

What has been abundantly clear to me about the whole sordid Sherrod affair is just how deeply ingrained in the American psyche is the conservative narrative about race and racism in America.

During the last several decades, books and articles written by conservative writers – many of them housed in conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, University – have defined much of our racial discourse.

Some of their books have become best-sellers. There is not enough space to list them all, but two of the most well-known and successful books are:

What is striking about both of these books is that they promote some of the oldest and most familiar racist myths, including the idea that black people are violent, intellectually inferior, lazy, and prone to dependency on welfare and other government handouts.

As an example, in his 700 page book, The End of Racism, D'Souza unloaded this zinger, which managed to offend several black conservatives enough that they resigned from the American Enterprise Institute in protest of its promotion of the book:

Most African American scholars simply refuse to acknowledge the pathology of violence in the black underclass, apparently convinced that black criminals as well as their targets are both victims: the real culprit is societal racism. Activists recommend federal jobs programs and recruitment into the private sector. Yet it seems unrealistic, bordering on the surreal, to imagine underclass blacks with their gold chains, limping walk, obscene language, and arsenal of weapons doing nine-to-five jobs at Procter and Gamble or the State Department.

While social science surveys suggest that most whites no longer hold these crude racists views, the success of the Bell Curve and The End of Racism should give us all a reason to question the validity of the survey data about racial attitudes.

A number of black writers have done their part to promote conservative myths about race and racism:

These black authors often couch their arguments in language about morality, self-help, and personal discipline. Ignoring or minimizing the brutal impact of structural forces that shape options and opportunities for a significant number of blacks trapped in ghetto neighborhoods, a particularly striking theme that runs throughout their books is the idea that the problems faced by the black poor and working class stem primarily from their lack of personal responsibility.

It should come as no surprise that many of these black authors – as do many conservatives in general – promote the myth that most whites are color-blind and pay little or no attention to race. According to this myth, the only people paying attention to race today are civil rights activists, white liberals, and a few radicals in the academy.

The Sherrod affair brought to the surface one of the newest myths being perpetuated by conservatives, that in the post-civil rights era, white people have become the main, if not the sole, victims of racial discrimination.

For decades, conservatives (see, for example, Frederick R. Lynch: Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action) have been arguing that, so-called, preferential treatment for blacks and other people of color, causes racial unrest, and unfairly limits white's access to jobs and educational opportunities.

Shirley Sherrod unwittingly and unintentionally stepped into that minefield when she gave her NAACP address. Because white victimhood has become such a dominant theme in the racial discourse of today, even being adopted by centrist and progressives, it should not have come as a surprise that so many people fell into the trap cast by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart and Fox News.

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