So much for post-racial politics. The tragic shooting of Miami teenager Trayvon Martin last month by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman has once again exposed America's deep racial fault lines. Jesse Jackson quickly announced that "blacks are under attack." White supremacist websites circulated bogus pictures of the teenager in an attempt to discredit him. And when president Obama pointed out that if he had a son "he'd look like Trayvon," Rush Limbaugh accused him of playing politics with Martin's death.
But the Trayvon Martin killing is, sadly, just the latest in a series of race-related controversies since the 2008 election. Here are five of the most inflammatory.
5. Jeremiah Wright's "God Damn America" Sermon
Occurring a good eight months before the '08 election, this controversy was an early clue that Obama's election wasn't going to turn a country with centuries of slavery and racial inequality into a nation of colorblind BFFs overnight. Some of Wright's comments were way out there, in particular his claims that the government gave black people AIDS. But the media didn't help by reducing him to enraged, out-of-context soundbites. In fact, at the heart of his sermons is a distrust of government not unlike what fuels the Tea Party:
"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people," he said in his 2003 sermon. "God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."
4. James O'Keefe
Punks Pimps the Media
Conservative activist James O'Keefe wasn't actually dressed up like a pimp when he sauntered into an office of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in 2009, but his selectively edited videos made it appear that way. And when he secretly recorded several ACORN employees giving him advice, it created a firestorm of criticism that ended in Congress pulling the plug on the 40-year-old organization. Many liberals saw the manufactured controversy as an attack on the mostly poor (and Democrat-leaning) minorities aided by the organization. To conservatives, O'Keefe was a hero of Andrew Breitbart-like proportions. O'Keefe was later arrested for trying to sneak into the office of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
3. The New Black Panther Party
The New Black Panther Party is back in the news after offering a $10,000 bounty for a citizens' arrest of George Zimmerman. Two years ago, however, the same group was at the heart of another controversy. Two members -- one armed with a club -- allegedly frightened white voters away from a polling place in Philadelphia on Election Night 2008. The Bush administration declined to press criminal charges. Then, in September of 2010, Department of Justice officials under Obama decided to drop most of the civil charges against the group. Several Bush-era DOJ employees were enraged. One, Christopher Coates, claimed the Obama administration didn't want to protect the voting rights of white people.
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2. Shirley Sherrod
If Obama was unfairly blamed for Jeremiah Wright or the New Black Panther Party, his administration was at least partly at fault for Shirley Sherrod's controversial firing/retirement. Sherrod was a black official in the Agriculture Department under Obama. But when the conservative rant-o-sphere lit-up with a video that seemed to show her admitting to discriminating against a white farmer, she said she was forced to resign. Later, un-edited footage of her speech to the NAACP proved that her story had been a warning against discrimination. Oops.
1. Henry Louis Gates-Gate
Gates, a distinguished black Harvard professor, returned home to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from a trip to China to find his front door stuck. When he tried to get into his own house, a passerby reported an attempted break-in to the police. Gates argued with cop James Crowley (who wouldn't be pissed after a 20-hour flight) and the professor was charged with disorderly conduct. The arrest sparked a national debate over racial profiling that quickly degenerated into absurdity. When Obama said that Crowley had acted "stupidly" for arresting an elderly man for trying to get into his own home, Glen Beck called Obama "a racist" with a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."