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Sherrodgate: A Conversation on Race Between George Jefferson and Al Bundy

This week’s Big Story on race reminds me of Married With Children. Really.

Not because of the NAACP’s role in the firing of the Agriculture Department’s Shirley Sherrod. Obviously, in the wake of their well-advised and masterfully civil demand that the Tea Partiers disavow racism officially, to them a video of a speech made to their own members by someone appearing to condone reverse racism was poison.

Which would have made sense if that’s what the video showed. But it didn’t, especially when viewed in toto (but actually only barely even in the clip). They were hasty in condemning Sherrod solely on the basis of the clip.

And, not “snookered” by Andrew Breitbart or anyone else, despite the NAACP’s Benjamin Jealous putting it that way. As lightning fast as the news cycle and the blog culture are today, no one can be “snookered” into refraining from watching something that lasts 45 minutes, the length of, say, two episodes of Married With Children (no, that’s not how that show fits in here–but just saying).

But in the past I have spoken truth to the NAACP enough, and this is not the week to nitpick over their conduct. I am still glowing from their behavior last week.

It was an example I didn’t expect to see of the kind of “conversation” on race that Eric Holder memorably said we never have last year. I was deeply unimpressed by that remark, because what people like Holder really mean by that is, as I have often said, a conversion, not a conversation. What they mean is that whites need to listen to blacks explain why racism is still a serious problem. I see no purpose for that “conversation” and do not blame whites for having lost interest in it.

But if there can really be a “conversation” that includes things like Benjamin Jealous calling on the Tea Party to disavow racism while actually admitting that the group itself is not founded on racism, then hallelujah.

In the same way, if part of the conversation can be a black Agriculture Department bureaucrat standing before a black audience and explaining how her cultural sense of whites as the enemy was tempered by her career experience and that she is now more inclined to think about class than race, then hallelujah. These are conversations!

And then here comes someone like Andrew Breitbart, taking one clip from it and proposing that the woman was standing before the NAACP and patting herself on the back for being a reverse racist, with the audience members happily cheering her on. And this is not a church service, mind you, with someone whipping up the crowd with zingers and melodic cadences. This is people sitting listening to what used to be called an address.

I can only assume that Breitbart’s misinterpretation of Sherrod is due to the A.D.D. tendency described in the recent New Yorker profile of him, something he sounded almost proud of. He admits not having watched the whole thing; too hard to refrain from tweeting for 45 minutes, I guess. For him to be able to watch a sober-minded, intelligent woman making that speech and come away thinking of her as taking the line of Jeremiah Wright makes him, quite simply, cartoonish to me. Like something out of Married With Children, a live-action cartoon which I must admit I am a huge fan of.

Maybe it’s because I just finished watching through Season Seven (yes, I admit it!) that I can’t shake thinking of Breitbart here as a living Al Bundy. This is actually how Al Bundy would process the Sherrod tape.

The Breitbarts among us need some Conversation Lessons too. If people like Jealous and Sherrod learn that it’s not always fifty years ago, people like Breitbart need to learn that most black people do not harbor the politics of Tavis Smiley (upon which my post about Jesse Jackson’s irrelevance is, in fact, relevant).

Sure, you’ll find a ragtag bunch of underoccupied men playing cops and robbers hopped up on old photos of Huey Newton and talking about “crackers,” titling themselves the “New Black Panthers.” But this doesn’t mean that in the real world Michelle Obama would sit before a group cackling about “whitey.”

If America is really going to have any kind of useful “conversation” about race, it can be conducted neither by the likes of George Jefferson nor Al Bundy. The “race monger” this week is Breitbart—on her good days, even Kelly Bundy had a better ear for nuance than his.