As an 8-year-old, I wanted to be a U.S. senator when I grew up. My parents were proud but warned me that it would be an uphill battle; there weren't any black people in the Senate, and I would have to work extra hard to overcome prejudice. I remember thinking that my parents weren't up on the times — the world had changed.
But when David Duke ran for Senate just a few years later, I questioned whether our country had really changed. How could anyone take someone like Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, seriously on important political issues? I remember feeling confused and uncertain about my own future.
My sense of unease about giving racist views a national television platform — and the implication that those views represent a legitimate viewpoint worthy of public discourse — was most recently stirred when Pat Buchanan started his book tour for Suicide of a Superpower with an appearance on the white nationalist radio show The Political Cesspool. The campaign that followed pushed MSNBC to cut its ties with the controversial commentator.
Late last month, Buchanan appeared on Fox News to repeat his accusation that organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, Human Rights Campaign and my own organization, ColorOfChange, had stifled his right to free speech. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Freedom of speech allows ColorOfChange to raise the voices of our members — black people and our allies of all races — on the issues we identify as important. The right to free speech is exactly what allows ColorOfChange and other organizations like ours to speak out and organize to hold the government, corporations and public figures accountable. It is what allows us to bring the voices of everyday people forward in important debates so that they can be heard, even as the voices of the wealthy and powerful may attempt to drown them out.
Buchanan was not just voicing his support for the flat tax or opposition to affirmative action — issues over which we would argue eagerly and passionately. Rather, Buchanan used his public platform to claim that slavery benefited black Americans and that "black folks" have trouble getting taxis in New York City because cab drivers know that they are likely to be murdered if they pick up a person of color at night.
Buchanan is entitled to his opinions (even if a reasonable person would consider those views to be extreme and bigoted), just as those of us who represent America's rich diversity are entitled to speak out when broadcasted speech crosses the line into pure racism. Furthermore, news organizations are entitled to — and have a responsibility to — value constructive political debate over prejudiced ranting and fire someone who doesn't meet their standards. MSNBC took a brave and principled stand in deciding to cut ties with Buchanan.
Throughout the controversy around Buchanan's firing, we've heard commentators such as Joe Scarborough state that although they do not agree with his opinions, they are worthy of debate. The truth is, though, that they are not. There is no value in debating the concept of racism.
It is simply intolerable for our country to accept hate speech under the pretext of legitimate political commentary. Through the Internet and social media, the Pat Buchanans and David Dukes of the world will continue to speak loudly, but we shouldn't have to sit quietly while mainstream media legitimize their views with a public platform.
The media has a responsibility to air a diverse set of views. What they don't have is a responsibility to send messages fueled by intolerance, prejudice and racism into our homes. Black youths should be encouraged to dream about a future in the Senate — just like any other dreamers, regardless of their race, gender, religion, nationality or sexual orientation. All Americans have a responsibility to voice our dissent when we see history repeating itself.
Rashad Robinson is executive director of ColorOfChange. With more than 800,000 members, ColorOfChange is the largest online black civil rights organization.