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The Shirley Sharrod/Racism Story: Much Less Than Meets The Eye ?

Yesterday, Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government broke the story of what it said was a US Department of Agriculture official in Georgia admitting that she refused to help a white farmer because of his race:

We are in possession of a video from in which Shirley Sherrod, USDA Georgia Director of Rural Development, speaks at the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner in Georgia. In her meandering speech to what appears to be an all-black audience, this federally appointed executive bureaucrat lays out in stark detail, that her federal duties are managed through the prism of race and class distinctions.

In the first video, Sherrod describes how she racially discriminates against a white farmer. She describes how she is torn over how much she will choose to help him. And, she admits that she doesn’t do everything she can for him, because he is white. Eventually, her basic humanity informs that this white man is poor and needs help. But she decides that he should get help from “one of his own kind”. She refers him to a white lawyer.

Here’s the video in question:

The story was quickly picked up by the conservative blogosphere, Rush Limbuagh, Sean Hannity, and Fox News. The NAACP, which was being accused of hypocrisy in the Breitbart article that started the controversy, moved quickly to condemn Sherrod. By the end of the day, Sherrod had been forced to resign from her position:

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) — A black former Agriculture Department employee, who resigned after a video clip surfaced of her discussing a white farmer, insisted Tuesday she “went all out” to help the man keep his farm and said she resigned under pressure from the Obama administration.

Shirley Sherrod, who resigned Monday as the department’s director of rural development for Georgia, told CNN she had four calls telling her the White House wanted her to resign.

“They asked me to resign, and in fact they harassed me as I was driving back to the state office from West Point, Georgia, yesterday,” she said. The last call “asked me to pull to the side of the road and do it [resign],” she said.

“I don’t feel good about it, because I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “… During my time at USDA, I gave it all I had.”

Her resignation came after media outlets aired the video, in which Sherrod, speaking to an audience, said she did not give the white farmer “the full force of what I could do” to help him avoid foreclosure.

Today, Sherrod is saying that the remarks on the two-minute YouTube video were misinterpreted and taken out of context:

Sherrod, in her first interview after the clip surfaced, told the AJC the damning video was selectively edited. She said the video posted online Monday by biggovernment.com and reported on by FoxNews.com and the AJC completely misconstrued the message she was trying to convey.

“For Fox to take a spin on this like they have done, and know it’s not the truth … it’s very upsetting,” said Sherrod, 62, who insisted her statements in the video were not racist. “I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough.”

Sherrod noted that few news reports have mentioned that the story she told happened 24 years ago — before she got the USDA job — when she worked with the Georgia field office for the Federation of Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund.

“And I went on to work with many more white farmers,” she said. “The story helped me realize that race is not the issue, it’s about the people who have and the people who don’t. When I speak to groups, I try to speak about getting beyond the issue of race.”

And, perhaps surprisingly for those who only heard the edited version of this story, the wife of the white farmer at the center of this story credits Sherrod with saving their land:

Eloise Spooner, 82, awoke Tuesday to discover that Sherrod had lost her job after videotaped comments she made in March at a local NAACP banquet surfaced on the web.

Sherrod, who is black, told the crowd she didn’t do everything she could to help a white farmer whom she said was condescending when he came to her for aid.

(…)

Spooner, who considers Sherrod a “friend for life,” said the federal official worked tirelessly to help the Iron City couple hold onto their land as they faced bankruptcy back in 1986.

“Her husband told her, ‘You’re spending more time with the Spooners than you are with me,’ ” Spooner told the AJC. “She took probably two or three trips with us to Albany just to help us out.”

Spooner called Sherrod Tuesday morning.

“She’s very sad about it,” Spooner said. “She told me she was so glad we talked. I just can’t believe this is happening to her.”

So, what’s going on here ? Is Sherrod a racist who was deservedly fired, or was she the unwitting victim of a media firestorm that was lit by Breitbart and whose flamed were fanned by a conservative spin machine obsessed with scoring points against the NAACP ?

Well consider this:

1. The incident occurred in 1986 when Sherrod was employed by the Georgia field office for the Southern Federation of Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund, a  private organization who describes its primary mission as to “strive to assist in land retention and development, especially for African Americans, but essentially for all family farmers.”

2. Sherrod did not say that she didn’t help the farmer in question, or that that she helped him less than he needed.

3. Sherrod did say that she felt unease about helping a white farmer when there were so many black farmers in Georgia in need

4. Sherrod did in fact provide the farmer with the best help he needed, eventually referring him to an attorney who helped him saving his farm by filing bankruptcy under Chapter 12 of the Bankruptcy Code

5. The farmer and his wife credit Sherrod with saving their farm and consider her a friend to this day.

Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher summarizes it all this way:

If what Sherrod says is true, this is not a story about grudgingly admitting that even white folks need help, but rather, a powerful, redemptive cautionary tale against discrimination of any kind. Both the AJC and Mediaite are working to locate a full video or transcript of the event.

This incident is being posed as the right’s answer to the NAACP resolution against “racist elements” in the Tea Party. This story also comes at a time when the New Black Panther Party has been thrust into the spotlight by Fox News (with predictable results), and debate rages over an Arizona immigration law that many say encourages racial profiling.

This is precisely the danger of ideologically-driven “journalism.” It is one thing to have a point of view that informs your analysis of facts, but quite abother when that point of view causes you to alter them.

In the meantime, it seems that the NAACP is now re-evaluating it’s hair trigger denunciation of Sherrod, which in the end will probably just play into the meme that Breitbart’s original post was trying to feed.

The right side of the aisle (with which I’m usually in agreement on political issues) seems to be taking much glee in the fact that this low-level USDA official lost  her job over comments she made about an incident that occurred 24 years ago when she wasn’t even working for the government. Personally, I’ve got to wonder what was really accomplished here. Where political points scored ? Maybe, but I cannot honestly say that a person deserved to lose their job over an incident that was nothing close to what the spin machine was claiming it to be.

The people pushing this story will probably respond to me by saying that this is just a case of turnabout being fair play, but if we’ve really entered a world where innocent people are going to become victims to political turf wars that really don’t mean anything in the long run, then we’re further down the road to an irreversible, and very bad, future than I thought.

Update: Tom Vilsack released a statement this afternoon explaining why he asked for Sharrod’s resignation:

Yesterday, I asked for and accepted Ms. Sherrod’s resignation for two reasons. First, for the past 18 months, we have been working to turn the page on the sordid civil rights record at USDA and this controversy could make it more difficult to move forward on correcting injustices. Second, state rural development directors make many decisions and are often called to use their discretion. The controversy surrounding her comments would create situations where her decisions, rightly or wrongly, would be called into question making it difficult for her to bring jobs to Georgia.

Our policy is clear. There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA and we strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person. We have a duty to ensure that when we provide services to the American people we do so in an equitable manner. But equally important is our duty to instill confidence in the American people that we are fair service providers.

I have to wonder if Vilsack understands that these comments referred to an incident occurred twenty-four years ago when Sharrod was not an employee of the USDA, and that there was no racial discrimination or racism involved.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Rob Miles says:

    Good article, Doug. Judging from the comments at Tommy’s site, facts aren’t going to get in the way of someone who wants to point out the “reverse racism inherent in the Obama Administration”, but I’m glad you posted this.

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  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    “but if we’ve really entered a world where innocent people are going to become victims to political turf wars that really don’t mean anything in the long run, then we’re further down the road to an irreversible, and very bad, future than I thought.”

    Are you kidding, these smear operations have become standard operating practise on the hard right. I know nothing about this case or why in the face of what was obviously a political smear anyone forced her resignation (who did the forcing btw ?) but it’s been apparent for a long time we’re a very long way down this road. This is why I believe less than 10% of what I see in the media these days.

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  3. [...] just throughly ticks me off The Shirley Sharrod/Racism Story: Much Less Than Meets The Eye ? There's little doubt they knew it was misleading, but if you score a few points, who cares if you [...]

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  4. Kilo-Foxtrot-3-2 says:

    Someone REALLY needs to find an unedited copy of Shirley Sherrods story or even a written copy if she was reading from a prepared speech. I don’t like seeing anyone get caught up in a storm of BS.
    Someone (anyone) with even a cell phone camera needs to speak on the record with Eloise Spooner. If Shirley Sharrod was talking about the Spooner family farm in that video clip, there’s a serious misunderstanding going on to put it very mildly.
    If it was not a racist rant (if all of the information in this article is correct), some serious apologies are going to be needed, just as a starting point.

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  5. Dantheman says:

    A simple question — in light of every one of Breitbart’s “scoops” to date being far less than meets the eye, and indeed being the product of deceptive editing, why does anyone take what he says seriously?

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  6. Steve Plunk says:

    I’ve got whiplash for this snapping back so fast. I’m sure she did do her job and it was a long time ago but this is not a smear operation. The Obama administration pushed for the firing. Blame them, not Breitbart.

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  7. The Obama administration pushed for the firing. Blame them, not Breitbart.

    I blame both

    Breitbart for starting a phony media frenzy over a non-story

    The Obama Administration for throwing a seemingly innocent woman under the bus without giving her a chance to defend herself.

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  8. Herb says:

    I gotta say, I have to commend all these non-racists going to war with the NAACP. They sure know how to pick winning battles and make themselves look good in the process, don’t they?

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  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    Herb says:
    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 16:43
    “I gotta say, I have to commend all these non-racists going to war with the NAACP.”

    No one is going to war with the NAACP. They were sold a bill of goods like everyone else. Nice try though.

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  10. Same here says:

    Are you kidding, these smear operations have become standard operating practise on the hard left. I know nothing about this case or why in the face of what was obviously a political smear anyone forced her resignation (who did the forcing btw ?) but it’s been apparent for a long time we’re a very long way down this road. This is why I believe less than 10% of what I see in the media these days

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  11. ponce says:

    “I blame both Breitbart for starting a phony media frenzy …”

    Breitbart is a prick but he has the right to line his own pockets by manipulating our dim news outlets.

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  12. JKB says:

    True, the chattering is getting lost on the drama of the story instead of the story itself. It isn’t that some racist abused their position to further their biases. It is that just 4 months ago, they related that story in a racist fashion. Notice where she pauses for the audience reaction and the audience reaction. “So I took him to one of is people…”? Who tells a story like that in 2010. Especially with a pause for the supposed “civil rights” organization members to laugh or murmur their assent. Notice how her epiphany about “haves” and “have nots” rather than race is quickly modified to it being not just about “black and white.” She subconsciously realizes that taking race completely out won’t play with her audience.

    Suppose a white federal official speaking in their official capacity told a story about how a black woman had come into their office speaking to them like they were entitled. All the while the white official relates how he’s deciding just what if any help he’ll give this woman based on their race and attitude. Knowing they might be judged by the help they gave this person, he takes her over to one of “their people”. And the audience laughed and assented to actions the person related.

    It wasn’t the racist behavior 24 years ago some 20 years after the civil rights act was passed that is indicative, it was the language and expectations used to tell the story to a very friendly NAACP audience.

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  13. Brummagem Joe says:

    “The Obama Administration for throwing a seemingly innocent woman under the bus without giving her a chance to defend herself.”

    Before jumping to conclusions, again, I’d like to know who exactly forced her out. And Doug if you’re a school principal and someone produces faked video evidence that one of your teachers is misbehaving with pupils what are you going to do. Culpability is not exactly equal is it?

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  14. JB,

    I would at least investigate, Vilsack obviously didn’t even bother to do that

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  15. Herb says:

    Sarcasm alert, Joe. I should have put quotes around “non-racist” just to drive home my point.

    “No one is going to war with the NAACP. ”

    I beg to differ….The NAACP is (literally) the new ACORN. At this point, it’s getting a bit ridiculous.

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  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    “I would at least investigate, Vilsack obviously didn’t even bother to do that”

    C’mon Doug, that teacher would not be teaching class that afternoon. That said, Vilsack is obviously a jackass given the source of this video. I’ve actually watched it now and it seems fairly clear to me she’s telling a parable. I can only hope she sues Breitbart from here to Christmas because I would.

    Herb says:
    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 16:56
    Herb I know you want to make “the story” the NAACP’s over reaction to being sold a bill of goods, but the story is the fraudulent bill of goods, and as I say I hope this woman seeks a legal remedy against the author of the fraud.

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  17. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Typical, blaming Breitbart for what he brough to light. What was out of context? The stated fact she thought the farmer was not asking for help but trying to establish his superiority over her? That she thougth about how black people had lost their property? Therefore she did not give him (the white farmer) all that she might have? Breitbart presented a picture of something that happened at an event. He claims it was all the video of that which was available. Watch it. If you do not think that was racist, you are stupid.

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  18. TFG says:

    If a white man had told a story that once it had been his job to help black farmers keep their land but he “didn’t do everything he could have, but he did enough” merely because of the color of their skin, would he have kept his job?

    Even if it had happened 24 years previously?

    Ask yourself.

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  19. Monica says:

    Sucks to be labeled a racist when you aren’t one.

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  20. Grewgills says:

    The wife of the white farmer allegedly discriminated against by the USDA’s rural development director for Georgia said Shirley Sherrod “kept us out of bankruptcy.”
    Eloise Spooner, 82, awoke Tuesday to discover that Sherrod had lost her job after videotaped comments she made in March at a local NAACP banquet surfaced on the web…
    …But Spooner, who considers Sherrod a “friend for life,” said the federal official worked tirelessly to help the Iron City couple hold onto their land as they faced bankruptcy back in 1986.

    “Her husband told her, ‘You’re spending more time with the Spooners than you are with me,’ ” Spooner told the AJC. “She took probably two or three trips with us to Albany just to help us out.”

    Spooner spoke to her friend by phone Tuesday morning.

    “She’s very sad about it,” Spooner said. “She told me she was so glad we talked. I just can’t believe this is happening to her.”

    http://www.ajc.com/news/farmers-wife-says-fired-574027.html

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  21. Herb says:

    “Herb I know you want to make “the story” the NAACP’s over reaction”

    Um, I think Breitbart’s got a bigger agenda than me. To me, the story is about the right wing’s overreaction to black organizations. It’s not going unnoticed.

    “If a white man…”

    The problem with analogies like this is that it ignores historical context. If we can include in them “if black men once owned white men as slaves,” we might found our answers to be different than we expect.

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  22. G.A.Phillips says:

    lol, smear machine,,,

    Yo Doug, you sound almost like Glen Beck, on his show today:)

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  23. ponce says:

    “Typical, blaming Breitbart for what he brough to light. ”

    On the contrary, we’re thanking Breitbart and his sleazeball tactics for driving more minority voters to the Democrats

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  24. Monica says:

    The moral of this story seems to be that unless you have irrefutable evidence that someone or a group of people is racist – you shouldn’t make the claim. It’s a harsh allegation. Breitbart and the NAACP seem to have both failed in this regard.

    What an unnecessary mess.

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  25. tom p says:

    All I can say is, “So much for “post-racial”….

    I don’t want to hear the words “post -racial” again here for at least the next 25 yrs…. idiots.

    Also: Thank you, Doug.

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  26. tom p says:

    ***The moral of this story seems to be ….***

    Unfortunately Monica, the moral of this story is, “Don’t ever tell the truth where someone might have a videocam/cell phone…”

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  27. ponce says:

    The moral of the story is will moderate Republicans speak out against fanatics like Breibart before it’s too late?

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  28. Pug says:

    What was out of context?

    The Breitbart video. Try to keep up Ragshaft.

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  29. [...] of the more surprising elements of the Shirley Sherrod story was the swiftness with which the NAACP condemned Sherrod and supported her firing by the Department [...]

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  30. wr says:

    Wow, I thought the election of a black president would drive all the racists crazy, but I didn’t think they’d be willing to come out of the closet completely. This “those darkies are oppressing the pure white race!” stories come straight out of Birth of a Nation.

    Thanks, Zels, for proving what I’ve always known — that the core of the Republican party is racists and bigots who loathe and fear anyone who doesn’t look or think exactly like them.

    By the way, are you still taking money from the government in direct contradiction to your stated philosophy?

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  31. [...] turns out that the story Sherrod tells in the clip actually took place 24 years ago, and that she was working [...]

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  32. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***The Breitbart video. Try to keep up Ragshaft.***

    Um ah um, Breitbart was pointing out(by releasing the clip) that the naacp is full of hypocritical liberal reverse racist Donkey poop. (see the audience)

    Beck said Obama screwed up because instead of firing her he should have gave her a promotion for being his kind of a Marxist.

    She saw the light, stopped hating him for being white, she went to make things right, taking up the poor mans plight, she now knows how to wield her might……………

    Try to keep up indeed.

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  33. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***Wow, I thought the election of a black president would drive all the racists crazy***

    ya you….

    ***but I didn’t think they’d be willing to come out of the closet completely***

    I did….

    ***This “those darkies are oppressing the pure white race!” stories come straight out of Birth of a Nation.***

    wtp are you babbling about you simple minded liberal?

    ***Thanks, Zels, for proving what I’ve always known — that the core of the Republican party is racists and bigots who loathe and fear anyone who doesn’t look or think exactly like them.***

    Rules for retards anyone? Your the ones who fear others who are not indoctrinated…

    ***By the way, are you still taking money from the government in direct contradiction to your stated philosophy?***I

    I tried, but I don’t have any illegitimate kids and im not an illegal racist alien,plus I am a white single male and I only have a broken femur, but since I have a job that i can’t work and I make 8 bucks an hour I couldn’t get poop from your sucka$$ liberal government.

    8 bucks an hour, lol ,probably more like like two after I pay all of your stupid a$$ taxes.

    Like I said before. It must suck to be dumb, stupid, and liberal.

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  34. floyd says:

    Wr;

    Your willingness to throw around unfounded accusations of racism proves the real point of the article, thanks.

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  35. [...] over the past couple of days in the case of Shirley Sherrod. A good run down of events can be found here. After that post was written, the full video of Sherrod’s statement was made available by the [...]

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  36. Franklin says:

    Well this wrong can be easily righted. Reinstate her now.

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  37. Dantheman says:

    Franklin,

    It takes more than that to right this. Ideally, there would be a perception running through the so-called liberal media that Breitbart has had his 3 strikes (creating stories out of misleadingly edited videos in the ACORN case and this one, as well as the attempted bugging of Sen. Landrieu’s office), and simply ignore him in the future. The chance of that happening, however, is roughly that of pigs flying.

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  38. Bob says:

    What the hell is wrong with you people??!!
    She said she didn’t help him as much as she was able Because He Was White!!!
    You g-d apologists for blacks disgust me! They ARE RACISTS at the NAACP.
    What would happen if I started a channel called “White Entertainment Channel’, or a group called the “Nat’l Association of White People??? Or a magazine called “Ivory” which catered to whites only??
    Get a grip and stop the charade! We all KNOW what would happen. Al Sharpton and
    the ‘Reverend”(LOL!) Jesse Jackson would have me in court faster than a speeding bullet.
    And I Would Lose! Because Onlty WHITES are Racists, right?
    Like I said, you black apologist MORONS Disgust Me!

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  39. wr says:

    Floyd — Unfounded. Right.

    “I tried, but I don’t have any illegitimate kids and im not an illegal racist alien,plus I am a white single male and I only have a broken femur, but since I have a job that i can’t work and I make 8 bucks an hour I couldn’t get poop from your sucka$$ liberal government.” — G.A. Phillips

    GA’s nothing but a festering mass of racial resentment. Zels is worse, but at least he’s amusing since he’s unable to explain how he justifies living off the government while blasting everyone else who does it as evil or corrupt.

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  40. Steve Plunk says:

    So it seems they are now rethinking the firing. Good for them. Once again we see amateurs doing the people’s work in Washington. She’s probably still just an ineffectual government bureaucrat but that’s not a firing offense. Maybe next time she should just avoid bringing up race at all.

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  41. [...] already commented on the utterly improper way in which Breitbart acted just to score political points, but [...]

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  42. floyd says:

    “”Thanks, Zels, for proving what I’ve always known — that the core of the Republican party is racists and bigots who loathe and fear anyone who doesn’t look or think exactly like them.”"
    “”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"

    So why not aim your vitriole at GA & Zels , or are you always just searching for ways to prove what you’ve always known?

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  43. HerbieD says:

    Thanks for the research and clearing up the context issue for the most part. Unfortunately, perception is reality and the facts will not make much difference at this point. The damage is done. Shame on brietbart for playing the old two wrongs game. The tea party would be better off not pointing fingers and simply ignoring the NAACP’s unproven claims. They could have come through this looking like the bigger organization. Now they have the same stink of the race card as the NAACP has, and I bet that sh*t don’t wash out. IMO brietbart will have doe more to harm than help the tea party in the long run with this. He joined in the “race game” and has chosen a very distinctive side with which the tea party will join him. It’s a side of ignorant intolerance and it is the losing side. Again, a great journalistic effort. Kudos!

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