The anti-ACORN minstrel show

Dressing up as a stereotype and doing some crude theater isn't hard-hitting investigative journalism

Topics: Acorn, Andrew Breitbart, James O'Keefe

Eric Boehlert’s column this week about the ACORN videos is a must read. As I have written before, I was one of those who thought that O’Keefe and Giles had gone into the ACORN offices dressed as they were shown in that endless loop on TV and was shocked to find out that O’Keefe had actually been dressed in a white shirt and khaki pants when they did the original sting.

This is a big deal for a couple of obvious reasons and one not so obvious reason. The first is that it resulted in ACORN being delegitimized and defunded (at least temporarily.) This was a huge blow to the people ACORN serves and politically to progressives who would like to see the poor enfranchised, something that the right wing rightly sees as a political threat. Anyone on the left side of the dial should be concerned that they were able to do this so easily.

The second obvious reason this is a big deal is because after the “story” broke, the major media donned a metaphorical hair shirt and loudly announced their shame at failing to follow the wingnut radio and Fox news agenda more closely, and in rushing to that judgment they also failed in their journalistic duty to figure out if this story was true. I’ve rarely seen them issue mea culpas so quickly and decisively and one should wonder why.

But the less than obvious reason this is a big deal is that the pimp and ho costumes were a send-up of over-the-top racial stereotypes that both reinforced some very ugly notions about the African American community, but more importantly, made these ACORN workers look as though they were so dumb they shouldn’t be allowed to cross the street, much less handle tax dollars. And this was done for a reason. The little dirty tricksters, it turns out, had relied on some other stereotypes to perform this sting — he had dressed like a nice, young, preppie fellow, just trying to help this unfortunate young white girl caught in a bad situation in order to gain the ACORN workers’ trust and compassion. He used his stereotypical innocent, youthful, studiously upstanding looks to create a false impression with the ACORN workers and then turned around and filmed some bogus footage of him dressed in a ridiculous pimp costume to give a false impression to the mostly white audience. It was a very clever way to use racial stereotypes on both groups to get what he wanted.

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This story is important. There’s a long tradition of undercover muckraking that’s initiated many an important social change in this country. But this isn’t muckraking, it’s political theatre. The level of cynical deception in this “story” runs several layers deeper than anything I’ve ever seen before, tapping into some really nasty, subterranean veins of stereotype, prejudice and racism — on everyone’s part — to make what ends up being a completely distorted point. The fact that what should have been instantly seen as an obviously absurd proposition was taken at face value even by the U.S. Congress and the major media institutions of this country should inform us a little bit about how tenuous our racial progress might just be. This was a shameful episode deserving of more scrutiny than it’s gotten so far.

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