This week, as the shooting of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina sparked a nationwide discussion of racism in America, Ian Tuttle at the conservative news site National Review published a takedown of activist DeRay McKesson, calling the #BlackLivesMatter organizer a “next-generation race-baiter.”
McKesson, he wrote, “has shown an unsurpassed ability to force every injustice, historical and contemporary, real and perceived, into a single framework: ‘Whiteness’ is wicked, ‘blackness’ is ‘beautiful.’”
It’s a classic misuse of the term “race-baiting,” a phrase used against those who dare to speak candidly about racism in America. In the Obama era, the right has embraced the term as a way of discrediting black people.
Right-wing outlets like the Drudge Report, Fox News and the National Review use the term “race-baiting” frequently and liberally. Drudge conveniently catalogs its use of the term for its readers.
Even when media outlets aren’t using the term “race-baiting” they find ways to allude to it and distract from what’s really being said.
CNN and Fox both aired segments this week focused on whether President Obama's use of “nigger” on a podcast was appropriate, rather than discussing why the president said the word in the first place. “I think many people wondering if it’s only there he would say it, and not perhaps in a State of the Union, or a more public address,” said Fox host Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
The accusation of race-baiting certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was forced to defend his activism from inside a Birmingham jail cell after eight white Alabama clergy penned a letter responding to civil-rights protests calling for “outsiders” to leave.
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” King wrote in response.
It isn’t hard to draw a parallel between those eight Alabama clergy and Tuttle. “Go home, Deray. And stay there,” demands Tuttle of McKesson, rather aggressively.
It’s not just South Carolina. After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Bill O’Reilly told his viewers he was “furious” about media coverage of the shooting. Conservative voices echoed O’Reilly. “This mantra of the unarmed black teenager shot by white cop. You know that description in and of itself actually colors the way in which we look at the story,” said a Fox News guest captured in Jon Stewart’s segment on race-baiting.
The current usage is a bastardization of a term that actually has real meaning. The right has co-opted the term “race baiting,” but here’s context for its proper usage:
In 1986 George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign released an advertisement attacking his opponent Michael Dukakis for supporting prison furloughs:
The advertisement baits voters by preying on their fears of black men’s inherent criminality.
Another example: During his campaign for presidency in 1976, Ronald Reagan warned of a “welfare queen” from Chicago who defrauded the government by using “127 names” and posing “as a mother of 14 children at one time.” Reagan went on, “Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”
Reagan—like Bush did after him— perpetuated the stereotype of black people as lazy. Instead of focusing on America’s poverty, Reagan named black people as the problem. A beautiful distraction.
And it mirrors Tuttle’s attack on Deray McKesson. Disproportionate killings of black people by police officers, systemic poverty, lack of access to fair and equitable education—those aren’t the problem. Deray McKesson is.
McKesson is Tuttle’s red herring, just as Horton was Bush’s and the “welfare Queen” was Reagan’s.
Deray McKesson’s occupation is not, as Tuttle implies, professional race-baiter. To borrow from Tuttle, McKesson is a “professional activist,” a far cry from the damaging imagery promulgated by white politicians for votes.
“This next-generation race-baiter has absorbed the argot of the academy, recognized that it is the closest thing to a self-powering engine of racial outrage as has yet been devised, and figured out how to package it for a mass audience,” wrote Tuttle.
Merriam Webster - for clarification - defines “race-baiting” as “the unfair use of statements about race to try to influence the actions or attitudes of a particular group of people.”
Tuttle is calling McKesson a race-baiter for being a “professional activist” who travels around the country working to raise awareness around the deadly impact of racism. “New York City, Milwaukee, McKinney, Baltimore, Charleston — wherever racial tensions have appeared, McKesson has not been far behind,” writes Tuttle.
A mob — for clarification — is defined as “a large crowd of people, especially one that is disorderly and intent on causing trouble or violence.” Hardly the activism propagated by McKesson on Twitter.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.