On a Friday evening a little over three years ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and saw a post of a humorous meme entitled “Is Someone A Racist?” I had seen this meme (or one very much like it) on Facebook before, but I did notice that this time it was posted on the Facebook page of the Republican Party of Iowa. I remember being a bit surprised that it was posted there, but only because I thought it might be a bit too “edgy” for that page. Party communications typically steer clear of that sort of thing and stick with polished and non-controversial stuff. I didn’t think much more about it, though. It seemed harmless enough to me.
It turned out to be a pretty big deal.
There was a lot of fuss about the meme on Facebook, and the fuss came very quickly. The meme wasn’t live very long. I think it was up for a little over ½ hour and then was taken down, but that was long enough for it to be captured in a screenshot and subsequently posted by the Daily Beast.
I knew Shane Vander Hart was working with RPI in some capacity. I think I knew he was working with them on their social media, but I didn’t know what all that entailed. I didn’t speak with Shane that night, but I was concerned that he might have some involvement in the situation and it was clear from what I was seeing on Facebook that this was getting messy. I figured I’d visit with him soon and ask him about it.
I ended up not having to ask him. Shane posted a mea culpa article at Caffeinated Thoughts the next day. He took full responsibility for having posted the meme, apologized for having done so, and announced that his working relationship with RPI had ended.
So what was all the fuss about? Here’s the original meme that caused such an uproar:
Scott Brennan, then chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, had this to say about the meme: “Iowans have had enough of the intolerance, hate and divisiveness shared tonight on the Republican Party of Iowa’s Facebook. This sort of rhetoric – joke or not – has no place in politics, period.”
After Shane’s apology, the following comments were made at Caffeinated Thoughts:
“This “apology” only shows that you don’t even understand what you’ve done. Are you using your flowchart to understand what is racist about your behavior?”
“Glad to know you’re (sic) bigoted “race card” discussion would have been fine among you’re (sic) own circle of bigots, but that you need to keep it under wraps when you are talking about going to a public political level. LOL at your firm and your ministry if it preaches this kind of prejudice.”
And then there was this:
“Your blatantly racist post is a perfect reflection of the tea party and explains exactly why, as long as the tea party is accepted as part of the GOP, the GOP will never win a national election.”
Finally, there was this kind and sweet admonition:
“…I’m calling you out for the hypocrite you are. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Don’t worry, though…I’m sure the Klan or their ilk would be more than happy to hire a like-minded individual such as yourself to run their social media outreach. Best of luck with that. White Power, buddy!”
There were a few comments that were supportive of Shane and even of the meme, but most of those who were commenting were negative, to say the least. It was clear: In their minds, anyone who would post such a thing as that meme was a racist. It was self-evident, I guess. But, in case there was any doubt, a number of them explicitly said he was a racist.
The Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu weighed in as well, and, after blasting the Iowa Republican Party for a couple of paragraphs, said this: “State party chairman A.J. Spiker and his Facebook page manager, Shane Vander Hart, apologized to those who “were offended” by the post on racism. Yet neither refuted its point of view, promoted party inclusiveness or acknowledged racism works both ways. Nothing was offered that would make people of color think they might actually find a home there. Tell us the Ku Klux Klan currently recruiting in Iowa is imaginary too.”
When all of this happened, Shane and I were in the middle of planning our first world view conference, the Caffeinated Thoughts Briefing, and we were two weeks away from launching the radio show, Caffeinated Thoughts Radio. I wanted to talk about the meme controversy on our first radio show, not only because I thought it would make for good radio, but I was itching to defend Shane and tell people how foolish it was to think Shane was a racist. But Shane wasn’t interested in that at all. He was just interested in having the whole business out of the news cycle, and the sooner the better. I understood, but it still bothered me that, other than Shane’s response to Rekha Basu that he posted on Facebook, no defense had been given on Shane’s behalf, and no real analysis of the meme had been given either.
Let’s start with the meme.
In spite of Rekha Basu’s proclamation to the contrary, that meme was funny. And it illustrated something of the frustration of so many of us who were being told there was a racial component to our criticism of President Obama. It was a charge that was made numerous times by politicians and pundits during the entirety of Obama’s presidency. It was a really disgusting syllogism: We didn’t like Obama. We were white. Therefore, we must be racists.
As Sen. Jay Rockefeller said in 2014, “…some in the GOP don’t want the implementation of the health law to succeed because they don’t personally like the president and maybe he’s of the wrong color.”
Or, as David Axelrod rod said last year: “It’s indisputable that there was a ferocity to the opposition and a lack of respect to him that was a function of race.”
As I wrote a few years ago, “The charge of racism is an easy one to make and, once it’s made, nearly impossible to disprove. It’s a little like the charge of being a witch in Salem in 1692. If you admitted to witchcraft, you might be executed. If you denied you were a witch, once accused, you’d likely get executed anyway. And if you refused to make a plea, as did the unfortunate Giles Corey, you were punished with “an archaic form of punishment called peine forte et dure…” which resulted in Corey’s death after two days.” In short, you’re presumed to be guilty and good luck trying to prove otherwise.
The meme gave us a chance to express our disgust at this false accusation, and it did it in a way that was humorous. The intent was not to minimize real racism, but rather to illustrate a false accusation of racism, and, for that, the meme (and whoever would post it) was condemned as racist. That was preposterous, and ironic in no small measure.
The unfortunate reality is that the criticisms of the meme boiled down to this: If you are white, you don’t get to talk about racism. Period. Not even if you think you’re routinely being falsely accused of it. You’re simply supposed to shut up and take it.
As for Shane, he made a mistake which he will readily admit, and that’s that he posted the meme on the RPI Facebook page. It was edgy humor that maybe didn’t belong there. But that isn’t what he was criticized for. He was instead condemned as a racist by fools whose ignorance was surpassed only by their own hubris. The accusations that were made against him publicly three years ago were hurtful, hateful, and egregious calumnies.
Shane Vander Hart is a good man. I’m honored to be professionally associated with him. I’m honored to call him a friend. Shane cares about people. All people, regardless of their race.