Ever since Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann announced her presidential candidacy last month, her liberal media critics have eagerly pounced on any and every statement she makes that comes close to being controversial.
First are the factual errors she makes about history such as saying the Revolutionary War’s “shot heard ‘round the world” took place in New Hampshire rather than Massachusetts.
The other genre of Bachmann story that gets attention consists of inflammatory statements she throws out as red meat to conservative crowds such as calling the Obama administration a “Gangster Government.”
But when Bachman broke dangerous new ground in late July by playing to the nation’s history of racial bitterness I was alarmed to see that she somehow escaped serious attention from any media, liberal or conservative.
Here’s what happened:
In July Rep. Bachmann and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), held a press conference after touring flood damage to mid-western farms along the Missouri River. Reporters asked Bachmann and King if their calls for drastic cuts in federal spending would mean less money for emergency aid to help beleaguered farmers.
King responded that there would be more money for the mostly white farmers if the government was not paying so much to settle cases involving racial discrimination against black farmers. He even charged that a large percentage of the USDA settlement "was just paid out in fraudulent claims" and blasted the Obama administration's plan to resolve separate discrimination suits filed by Hispanic and women farmers.
"That's another at least $1.3 billion," King said "I'd like to apply that money to the people that are under water right now." In the past, King has characterized the entire black farmers’ suit as a “modern-day reparations” for black people.
Bachmann seconded his criticism, saying, “When money is diverted to inefficient projects, like the Pigford project [Pigford is the name of the lead plaintiff in the black farmers’ discrimination suit], where there seems to be proof-positive of fraud, we can’t afford $2 billion in potentially fraudulent claims when that money can be used to benefit the people along the Mississippi River and the Missouri River.”
Bachmann did not provide any support for her “proof positive” charges of fraud.
I know there were many important stories involving Michele Bachmann and her presidential campaign in recent weeks. For example, her high profile stand against raising the debt ceiling under any circumstances pushed the country to the brink of default.
But I can’t get over how easily she joined in demeaning black farmers and drumming up racial resentments and how little attention it got from the media.
The Pigford settlement was not a case of reverse racism. It is not a form of reparations for undeserving people trying to pull some racial scam on the government. It was the end result of a thorough legal process from wronged Americans with a legitimate grievance.
In 1999 federal courts have ruled that the United States Department of Agriculture engaged in racism during the 1980s and 1990s by denying help to economically distressed black farmers solely because of their skin color.
North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford was one of those farmers. With hundreds of other black farmers whose claims for federal aid had been denied, he filed a class action lawsuit against then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. The case Pigford v. Glickman made its way through the federal appellate process and the Courts ordered several hundred million dollars in payments to the black farmers.
The dispute was back in the headlines last year when President Obama signed legislation authorizing a new settlement of just over $1 billion dollars for farmers missed the first deadline for joining the lawsuit.
Back in 2006, I authored an essay for the book “Black Farmers in America.” My words accompanied emotionally powerful pictures -- by celebrated photographer John Ficara -- depicting the loss of family farms and a way of life as a result of the discriminatory treatment by the USDA.
In the book, I wrote that those black farmers, largely southerners with ties to the land that extended back to slavery, were “unwavering in their determination to cultivate their own land and master their own economic fate.” They displayed an all-American commitment to liberty and personal independence. These people never asked for hand-outs or welfare of any kind. They simply expected to be treated fairly when the government offered to help all farmers when the farm business hit a devastating downturn in the ‘80s.
After Bachmann made her reckless comments, John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, which represented black farmers in the Pigford case, stressed that he and National Black Farmers Association worked diligently to place anti-fraud protections in the legislation. “We worked with Republicans … to get those issues addressed,” he said. “Even after we got them addressed, Ms. Bachmann and Mr. King have continued to look at black farmers in a very negative way.”
Boyd is right. America cannot allow Bachmann and other revisionists to sow the seeds of racially explosive misinformation. Too many people have suffered. The truth is too important. And there is a sad history of politicians stirring racial hate to distract people from their problems.
Those Midwestern farmers struggling with flooding don’t deserve such contempt. And the black farmers who lost family land and legacies don’t deserve to be slandered as bums looking for a handout.
This is the point when Bachmann’s words have strayed far over the line of political inaccuracies or even inflammatory rhetoric. She is now skating along the red zone of stirring hate. And now is the moment when the media needs to pay serious attention to such demagoguery.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His next book is "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) was released in July.