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In Response to the Unknown and Faceless

Trolls come out from their dark, hidden spaces to write all sorts of nasty comments that they dare not say in public or in polite company.

I took syndicated columnist and political pundit Pat Buchanan to task in a recent column, and man, oh man, did some readers let me know that they didn’t like it.

In the column, I chastised Buchanan for comments he made during an appearance on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” during which he waxed nostalgic about a time in U.S. history when European culture dominated American life, complaining that the country is “about—what?—25 years away from the fact where Americans of European descent will be a minority in the United States.”

I find such lamentations racist and said as much. “Buchanan’s nostalgia for the Hollywood version of mid-20th century America shares equal billing with the themes of white resentment of modern-day realities,” I wrote.

For the most part, I don’t get angry reader reactions to my weekly columns, an observation that I’ve chalked up to the politically selective choices so many people seem to make when consuming information and soliciting opinions. From time to time, I hear from self-identifying progressive readers—presumably because they frequent the Center for American Progress website where the column is posted—letting me know that they agree with something I’ve written. Occasionally, they challenge an opinion or point out a factual error.

But I’ve never experienced anything like the reaction to the Buchanan column. In fact, no other column in the six years I’ve been writing “Race and Beyond” has generated more reader reactions. These were overwhelmingly negative, with readers filling my office email with angry, hostile, offensive, and insulting missives. A few were respectful in their disagreements, and a fraction were over-the-top racist. As far as I can tell from the names and self-identifiers, every comment was written by a man.

Here is a sampling of the typical insults:

[S]hut your f—ing mouth about pat and white America…..without a white man in office America is doomed because a black man cant govern themselves ..take a look at Africa….full of lush green farmland and people starving…whats wrong with that picture…but I guess that’s the white man’s fault too!!!

And:

You pathetic idiot. We white folks that you generalize about (while you hypocritically accuse us of that same bigotry) do not “pine” for the good old days. We want equal opportunity and success for all Americans. We do know that certain groups, like yours, are not acting like Americans. Terrible illegitimacy, horrible crime, drug use, venereal disease, drop out rates, etc., etc. are the result of your un-American philosophy. They don’t love my country, constantly finding fault while never admitting our “exceptionalism” and accomplishments. They don’t think we should even try to be our best, which because of our free market system (if it still exists) will give us so much. They see their ethnic or racial group as a special needs crowd without ever accepting responsibility for their own condition. Its all those “white folks” fault. No, it isn’t. If you ever grew a brain and adopt American ideals of self-reliance, overcoming obstacles instead of living off someone else’ effort, you could have the same success. Gee, when are you going to write about the benefit of fathers in the home. Oh, I forgot, can’t criticize those “Black Folks” – they might be disrespected. Poor babies. Being cocooned in your media close mindedness I doubt you will agree with me. Like the Bible says about people like you – they prefer a lie over the truth. But then if we are like your ethnic group (Africa), or the others (Latinos, Muslims) we can be as dysfunctional, corrupt, weak, diseased, and poor like the countries “you all” came from. If you don’t like American ideals, then why not leave instead of destroying it for the real Americans, including those “Black Folks” or Latinos or Muslims who actually try to be American. You obviously will never know what it is really like being a totally non productive, worthless, and grossly overpaid media type who does not have the common sense to try to fix problems rather than blaming others. Drop dead!!!

This one, however, was uniquely respectful in disagreeing with me:

Pat Buchanan is merely stating facts of the history of our country. He is not wrong sir. While an official language may not exist in some countries, speaking a common language is what has always kept people together. It is a major unifying principal of a society, common language. Pat could have even expounded on his examples in America by using other cases throughout history and the world.

And so, too, was this one:

You wrote a good article about Pat Buchanan. It would have been a great article if it were not for the title. The title makes you out to be a racist. Not all white people think like Pat B. Those who share that fantasy, merely share that fantasy. It isn’t a white fantasy, it is their fantasy. You propagate racism when you make sweeping generalizations about all whites when you compare them to Pat B. When black people decided to stop playing the race card with everything, race issues will fade.

I’m sharing these snippets from my email because I believe that they confirm the original point of the column. I also think that it might be eye-opening and important for frequent readers of my column to see what people are thinking beyond their circles of comfort.

I don’t mind the criticism, partly because I’ve had a lot of experience writing on race over the past three decades. Absorbing criticism and reading angry emails are part of a columnist’s job description. So, too, is having thick skin: The vile comments must bounce off your back and never touch your soul.

But I also want to understand the people who read what I have to say and then go to the trouble of writing me in response. From what I can surmise, there appear to be two interconnected reasons for the outpouring of raw, white-hot emotions to this column.

First, as has happened several times in the past, editors at Newsweek reposted my column on their website, and in turn, Yahoo briefly placed that posting on its home page. The double whammy of posting and reposting in more mainstream media spaces amplified my opinion of Buchanan well beyond the CAP website and put me in touch with an audience that probably doesn’t spend much time reading progressive opinions. Most likely, they had never heard of me before and took this opportunity to let me know how much they didn’t like what I had to say.

The second reason is, perhaps, predictable to anyone who writes about race. Trolls come out from their dark, hidden spaces to write all sorts of nasty comments that they dare not say in public or in polite company. This is especially true when stories are written by or about people of color and readers feel personally offended. Consider the recent outpouring of online comments attacking the president’s daughter upon the announcement of her college plans or, for that matter, comments on almost any story about President Barack Obama’s administration. And, not to be outdone, racists seem especially active in online comments appended to crime and sports stories, topics under which stories about black people are more likely to be posted.

Nothing pleases me more than knowing that someone—an unknown and faceless person out in the vastness of cyberspace—cares enough about what I write to get in touch with me and share an opinion. Whether you agree or disagree is not nearly as important as the fact that you took the time to reveal a glimpse of yourself to me. I take it as a compliment to my work.

To be perfectly honest, I write to share my opinions, and I’m flattered to know what people think in response. If there comes a day when I can’t roll with the criticism—no matter how harsh or uncivil—that’s the day that I’ll stop writing.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.