March 9, 2012
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The following article first appeared on the Web site of the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for its email newsletters.
Some political operatives work hard to drive wedges between us. And since this nation elected its first black president, these operatives have worked feverishly to stoke fear in the hearts of white Americans. One way they have done this is by literally telling white America that black intellectuals want them dead.
I wish I were exaggerating.
In July 2010, Glenn Beck devoted a segment to Charles Ogletree, a black tenured Harvard professor whose many pupils included Barack Obama. In the segment, Beck quoted Shamir Shabazz, a member of the New Black Panther Party, who said that sometimes you have to “kill crackers.” Beck suggested that Ogletree, and by extension Obama, supported these views.
Any suggestion that killing someone because of their race, or even disliking them solely because of their race, is reprehensible. But neither Charles Ogletree nor any other prominent black intellectual I know would endorse any such statement.
In that same month, Andrew Breitbart, perhaps one of the most divisive figures in American political discourse, published a misleading video of Shirley Sherrod. Ms. Sherrod was forced to resign from her position at the Georgia State Rural Development Office of the US Department of Agriculture despite the fact that the allegations were untrue.
Last night, Andrew Breitbart (apparently from beyond the grave) was at it again. This time he and his cronies at Breitbart.com
released a video clip of a young Obama at Harvard law school hugging Professor Derrick Bell, the world-renowned legal scholar and one of the foremost black intellectuals of his time, who passed away last October. Breitbart suggests that black people can’t be trusted to govern, by linking Obama to Bell.
This latest round of attack on black intellectuals should deeply trouble us all.
We have many big problems we need to address in this nation -- saving our homes, finding jobs that support our families, plugging into new sources of energy. The way we solve them is to think, talk, debate and work to advance solutions. Sometimes we advance solutions by fighting about them. Professor Charles Ogletree and Professor Derrick Bell have been intellectual leaders in a long tradition of calling on America to address racial unfairness. Professor Ogletree asks the nation to question our incarceration of huge numbers of black and Latino men. Professor Bell mounted a peaceful demonstration at Harvard to protest the fact that two black faculty members were, in his view as a colleague of theirs, unfairly denied tenure.
So the Andrew Breitbarts and Glenn Becks of the world tell us that it is racist to talk about race and tell white people to fear for their lives if black people talk about race. This is a profound attack on our national values of dialogue and debate. It is also a perverse strategy to attack a black leader by association -- President Obama.
We don’t have to agree on solutions to our problems or who is best positioned to lead us to them. But we must absolutely reject any suggestion that black intellectuals are dangerous because they are black intellectuals. Attacking the ability of black people to govern through specious claims that we are a danger to white people is nothing short of disgraceful.
Maya Wiley is a civil rights attorney and policy advocate, and the founder and President of the Center for Social Inclusion.