Two-Faced Racism at the Secret Service

Slate.com has posted scanned copies of the racist emails the Secret Service has finally turned over to a judge in the long-running lawsuit filed by African American employees. This batch of emails sent in recent years (several date from 2003) by at least 20 high-ranking supervisors in the Secret Serviceare excellent examples of two-faced racism. As blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, many of the emails seem fixated on Jesse Jackson and the jokes in the emails focus obsessively on sexual innuendos about black men’s bodies. The majority of the racist emails posted at Slate.com take the form of jokes of the sort that many whites use to bond with each other in whites-only private, backstage spaces. One of the emails is noteworthy because it departs from this pattern. Instead, it’s more of a general rant that encapsulates much of the white racial frame. What’s especially interesting about this rant is that the middle-class, college educated, well-employed, white, male, heterosexual, author of the email characterizes himself as such a victim of the current cultural milieu of “reverse racism.” Here’s part of what the (very long) email says:

“Reverse racism and political correctness are destroying virtually every aspect of American life. We’re completely surrounded by illegal aliens (who even illegally vote in our elections…) suck up our welfare dollars, steal public educations, commit massive amounts of crimes to include rape and murder, and refuse to learn English (why the @#^* should I have to choose which language I want to use at the ATM? It wastes my time and disgusts me.) …”

Interestingly, part of what the author of this racist email is complaining about is the technology of ATM’s – many of which offer built-in options for selecting different languages.   These kinds of options that build racial or ethnic identity into the machine is what Lisa Nakamura has referred to as “menu driven” racial identity in the digital era.  While some writers have suggested that cyberspace offers there are new, liberating possibilities for moving away from old forms oppression tied to modernity, the actual picture is more complex.    What used to be an ‘old media’ form of racism, shared either face-to-face, written on the back of lynching postcards, or via telephone, today takes on a slightly new twist when some of these old forms of backstage communication make the transition to digital media and such messages are now sent between whites via email. In this instance, the emergence of cyber racism opens up the possibility of disrupting old patterns through the mechanism of forwarding email. What was once only said in private can now, through forwarded email, move beyond the private whites-only space for which such communication was intended. However, such a possibility was not sufficient to lead to an actual interruption in the transmission of white supremacy.  Note that in this instance, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a single white ally within the Secret Service who would ‘break rank’ and forward these racist emails outside the white-only intended audience.  Instead, what it took to wrest these emails from the backstage and bring them into the frontstage for all to scrutinize was it always takes to change entrenched forms of oppression:  political action.   In this instance, that took the form of a lawsuit by African American employees of the Secret Service.


The rest of the email quoted above goes on to make the case for the importance of intersectionality in discussions of racism.  He goes on to include elements of gender and sexuality in the latter part of his rant:

“I’m not even going to start on partial birth abortions and selling baby parts to heal old people (Are the Nazis back in power doing experiments?).  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the two lesbians down the street from me…with their adopted Korean SON, menorahs in the front window….are a typical American family.   And I’m the sicko nut because I think they’re about as far from what God intended a normal family to look like as giant grasshoppers playing croquet on my front lawn.  But I’m the one with the screwed up view of reality.”

Screwed up, that’s one interpretation.   With this last, broad rhetorical swipe, the author pulls together themes of reproductive and sexual politics, homophobia, antisemitism, and combines it with yet more racism – this time against the adopted child of his lesbian neighbors.   The views he expresses here are indistinguishable from the overt white supremacist websites that I examine in my work.   Yet, people in power and the vast majority of whites in this country, continue to maintain that we have moved”beyond” racism.   Emails like the one discussed here suggest a far different reality.