Tainting the tea party with the charge of racism is proving to be an effective tactic for Democrats," Mary Frances Berry, a former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, told the Webzine Politico Tuesday.
"There is no evidence tea party adherents are any more racist than other Republicans, and indeed many other Americans," said Ms. Berry, who is now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "But getting them to spend their time purging their ranks and having candidates distance themselves should help Democrats win in November. Having one's opponent rebut charges of racism is far better than discussing joblessness."
In 2008, a group of liberal journalists discussed how to handle news coverage of Barack Obama's long association with his hate-spewing pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
"If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose," Spencer Ackerman, now of Wired magazine, said in an e-mail to colleagues on Journolist. "Instead, take one of them -- [Weekly Standard editor] Fred Barnes, [former Bush aide] Karl Rove, who cares -- and call them racists."
Journolist was a list-serve created by The Washington Post's Ezra Klein. He shut it down after conservative commentators Tucker Carlson and Andrew Breitbart obtained e-mails members had sent to each other.
But when the race card is played clumsily, it can backfire, as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Obama administration learned last week.
Just hours after Mr. Breitbart posted Monday a two-and-a-half-minute excerpt of a 43-minute speech Shirley Sherrod made to an NAACP audience in March, one of her superiors was on the telephone demanding she resign as director of rural development in Georgia for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The White House wanted her gone, Ms. Sherrod said she was told by Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook.
The White House denies involvement. But Politico reported that at a staff meeting Tuesday morning, Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina praised aides for moving quickly.
"We took decisive action, and it's a good example of how to respond in this atmosphere," Politico's source quoted Mr. Messina as saying.
In the excerpt posted by Mr. Breitbart, Ms. Sherrod, who is black, talks about how she was reluctant to assist a poor farmer who had come to her for help because he was white and black farmers had borne the brunt of discrimination in the past. Some in the audience appear to murmur appreciatively.
But the administration moved so fast to get rid of Ms. Sherrod that it gave her no chance to tell her side of the story. In the portion of the speech that was not aired, Ms. Sherrod describes how she overcame racial prejudice to provide aid to the farmer, and how they later became friends.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the president have since apologized to Ms. Sherrod and offered her a new job in the Agriculture Department.
"How is it possible that such a bright man as the president repeatedly acts without the facts when it comes to a topic so explosive as race?" asked Juan Williams of National Public Radio and Fox News, who is black.
Perhaps the administration is sensitive because it dropped a slam-dunk case of voter intimidation against the New Black Panther Party days before a federal judge was to rule in its favor.
NAACP President Ben Jealous issued a statement Monday night praising Ms. Sherrod's firing. "Her actions were shameful," he said.
The NAACP reaction was odd, because it had in its possession the tape of the entire speech.
Why would Mr. Jealous pop off without first reviewing the tape? Ms. Sherrod said she thinks it's because the NAACP is on the defensive for accusing tea partiers of racism. Mr. Jealous now says he was "snookered" by Mr. Breitbart and also has apologized to Ms. Sherrod.
If Mr. Breitbart had the whole tape and released only a misleading portion, he's committed an offense as vile as Think Progress did when it chopped up the remarks of a tea partier, who was standing next to his black wife, to give the false impression he was racially prejudiced.
Mr. Breitbart said his source sent him only the portion of the tape he aired. Even if he had no intent to deceive, it was reckless of him to release the excerpt without learning more about its context. He owes Ms. Sherrod an apology.
But it wasn't Mr. Breitbart who fired Ms. Sherrod without giving her a chance to tell her side of the story. To liberals as well as conservatives, the administration appears rash, cynical, weak and disingenuous.