What the ACORN Video Actually Reveals

James O'Keefe decked out for his sting on ACORN

So, two white kids dress up in pimp-and-ho drag and walk into a social service agency with a sneer… nope, it’s not the set up for a one-liner, but serious “news.” It’s how 25-year-old James O’Keefe and 20-year-old Hannah Giles made their now-famous gotcha video to prove community-organizing group ACORN is, well, helping poor people. They say they’ve shown the world what ACORN’s really about; I say they’ve revealed more about themselves.

There are many absurdities to this story, upon which we needn’t dwell. Never mind, for instance, that ACORN’s Philly office actually called the cops on the pair. Set aside their wild, demonstrably false claims about ACORN getting $8.5 billion in government funds. Don’t exhaust yourself with the bigger story: that the GOP’s attack on ACORN has for years been part of a broader campaign to discourage black voting by destroying the Justice Department’s voting rights apparatus and harassing voters at the polls. And I’m personally trying to get past my sympathy for the poor, bumbling counselors this silly duo cornered into farcical conversations about filing taxes for prostitution and getting housing for a brothel; that’s plainly not representative of ACORN’s work, but whatever.


Forget these surface details for a moment, and consider something deeper. Have you actually watched the video? Have you seen O’Keefe with his fur wrap, walking cane and wide-brim hat? He looks every bit the white college kid who uses Halloween as a chance to get pimped out and talk black. All he’s missing is the Afro wig and black face. It’s revealing footage, indeed.

The whole scheme, the fact that they even chose to pose as a pimp and a hooker, says less about ACORN than it does about the filmmakers’ own dark fantasies. This, you see, is what conservative whites imagine when they talk about government spending on social safety net programs—handing billions of dollars to pimps and hos. That’s what Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are invoking when they talk about President Obama’s secret “reparations” plan. That’s the nightmare that makes anti-“big government” protesters shudder as they demand their tax dollars back—government doling out money to lazy, sex-crazed criminals. This is their concept of poor people. As Washington Times columnist Andrew Breitbart told the Washington Post, “When I saw these videos, I couldn’t help thinking, this is the Abu Ghraib of the Great Society.”

And there you have the inescapable divide between those of us who think we have a responsibility to help people in need and those who don’t. O’Keefe, Breitbart and their crowd see poor (black) people as criminals gaming the system. I don’t. And I’m just not sure where the conversation can you go from there.


UPDATE: Clarence Page also turns the camera back on the filmmakers. Check out how at least one of the supposedly stung ACORN counselors was hip to what she thought was a joke (and should be considered such) and was toying with O'Keefe and Giles.

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