Post Politics: A sacrifice to the gods of racial politics

Monday, June 22, 2009 at 12:00am

Last Wednesday, a 24-year-old legislative staffer was “urged” to resign a post he had just attained less than a month previous. An intern for the majority of the session, Blake Graves had only recently become a temporary legislative assistant in the office of Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis). He was expected by many to achieve full-time status but, instead, Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner had him sacked.

The reason? Politics.

Graves was a pawn in a great big game of racial sensitivity one-upsmanship. If the expression “at the wrong place at the wrong time” ever applied to anyone it was Graves.

On Monday, June 15, Blake Graves forwarded an e-mail that contained several very insensitive parodies of inspirational posters. The images transmitted were offensive to Asians, the mentally handicapped and the elderly. It was the kind of thing you might receive from a less-enlightened associate and promptly delete.

Graves, however, did not. He forwarded that e-mail to a huge list of both Democrats and Republicans working in the legislature. Later, after more fully examining the e-mail, Graves promptly sent out a notice apologizing for his transmission.

“Everyone, please excuse that e-mail I sent, I totally missed the words used in it. So please accept my apologies for that e-mail. Nonetheless, have a great Monday!” Graves e-mailed. And had it been any other Monday in the Legislature, the recipients would have put it out of their minds and done just that.

However, that Monday was not just any other Monday. That Monday was the day that Sherri Goforth, an aide to Sen. Diane Black (R-Gallatin), had been exposed as the sender of a far more inflammatory e-mail.

Goforth's e-mail contained portraits of our 44 presidents — save one. Instead of President Barack Obama there was simply a black background with two big bug eyes staring out from the darkness. This e-mail was not just outside the bounds of propriety. It was a throwback to a style of racism many would like to forget or pretend doesn’t exist. When the content and the originating office of the e-mail was revealed, the blogosphere erupted.

Broken by noted blogger/journalist Trace Sharp, the story was immediately picked up by other blogs, local media and the national press. It was a bona fide media firestorm. 
Goforth’s boss, a Republican, did not defend the e-mail and made clear that her aide had been sternly chastised. Democrats, however, were not satisfied, they called for blood.

As the Goforth saga reached its peak, a conservative blogger, Ken Marrero, posted the details of Mr. Graves’ e-mail on his blog. A similar, though more muted, firestorm developed. By day's end, Graves was no longer a legislative employee.

The state Democratic Party followed the forced resignation with a press release.

“I am saddened to see another incident like this, but I welcome this swift, decisive action by Speaker Williams and Democratic Caucus Leader Turner. They have sent the unequivocal message that, going forward, this sort of offensive behavior by employees of the State of Tennessee will not be tolerated,” said Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Chip Forrester.

Of course, we’ll never know, but one can’t help but wonder if Graves’ e-mail would have raised as many hackles had it not come the day a Republican staffer had failed to be fired for a similar incident.

While no e-mail like Graves’ should ever be sent through a state e-mail address (or ever), I think clearly most people would agree that Graves' e-mail was far tamer than Goforth’s.

Granted, nobody wants to get into business of ranking bigotry, but any kind of familiarity with our current culture would lead one to admit that Goforth’s e-mail takes a flying leap over “the line” where Graves’ saunters more leisurely across it.

But the occasion called for human sacrifice and Graves walked into the bonfire.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming just the players here, I’m blaming the game. Because clearly Graves' dismissal wasn't about right and wrong, it was about public perception. Democrats couldn't continue to stoke the Goforth fire while protecting a staffer one could argue did the exact same thing.

I just can't help but think that had Sherri Goforth never sent her e-mail, 24-year-old Graves might still be employed.
This whole fiasco seems like little more than a series of political calculations.

If tomorrow, Sen. Black had a moment of clarity and decided Goforth should be fired, she certainly wouldn't do it now. The political price for capitulation would be too high. It would be too obvious a show of weakness.

And, on the flipside, in a rush to make the Republicans look worse than they already did, Democrats may have dismissed an ambitious young person who would have been fired under no other circumstances.

Seems like a situation where a lot of people are acting righteous, but where very few are doing right.

Kleinheider is's political blogger. Visit Post Politics at

5 Comments on this post:

By: pswindle on 6/22/09 at 9:55

It just shows who is in charge in the State Senate. Diane Black can do whatever she wants to do, and she has, and she does not have to pay the piper. unless the people in Gallatin wake up. I am so sorry for the state of TN becasue the right-wing GOP is the most ugly acting individuals that I hve ever seen. It is their way or the highway. Our country was established on compromise, but TN Gop is not going to have any of that. unless they lose power again.

By: ddeere on 6/22/09 at 10:51

The ONLY thing wrong with the e-mail joke sent by Goforth was that it was sent on a state computer and it wan not funny….nor vindictive….nor “grossly offensive…..etc.

Big ears, half black half white, any objective facts are open to parody; something that EVER Politician has been and will be subject to let alone a president, GET A GRIP!

Regarding Senator Black, a very conscientious and considerate individual who is a Conservative and as “Whip” must make Senators toe the line (that is the function), she has served Gallatin quite good as both a Representative and Senator.

“Our Country was established on compromise”………like the kind that Naifeh practiced for a Generation?

Keep drinking the kool aid!

By: joew on 6/22/09 at 3:30

I think the response to the Diane Black/Sharon Goforth story has been too muted. People are discussing if Goforth's reprimand is adequate punishment. Heck, no it is not adequate! Ddeere thinks the only thing wrong with the email is that it was sent on a state email. WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! The problem with the email is that it is vulgar racism. Step back and look at the comments on variious blogs and there is a sort of acceptance of this 'casual racism' from people- particularly Southern Republicans. IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOR. IT IS NOT FUNNY. More importantly people who think it is funny or do not understand why it is offensive should not be in the government. They need to be singled out and disgraced. That means Diane Black should be censured for NOT firing Goforth and publicly rebuking her and her email. Apparently in both Black's and Goforth's worlds snide little anti-Black jokes are acceptable. Any of the state officials who received this email and took no action should be censured and preferably they should resign from office.
The strongest reactions should come from White Americans. This is not a Black American problem. This is a White American problem. White America in particular & American society as a whole has never faced up to the pure evil and terror that we perpetrated on our fellow citizens for some 350 years. This is not ancient history. In my lifetime, on my television screen, I watched American police sic dogs on people, turn hoses on people because they wanted to vote. Yopu think the violence in Iran is terrible this week. Go to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and look at Selma and Birmingham. How many times has each of us heard someone declaim that "THEY are better off because we brought them here." How can we be even debating apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow 144 years after the end of the Civil War! That's the shame of it- after 144 years we still can't say "we wronged you and your ancestors" to our Black countrymen. Instead we hide behind the claim it is nothing we personally did - as if none of us are responsible for our collective actions as a nation. Or we tremble & quake & cry "OH, MY- they might ask for reparations." Gee- we pulled Affirmative Action out from under and our Black citizens didn't humble themselves and say "thank you" because we couldn't maintain trying to redress their grievances for even a whole generation. Instead, we complain they might even be getting sassy.
One thing has changed from those unforgettable scenes of White hatred. Those racists were all Democrats back then, Dixiecrats. Now they are all Republicans, thanks to Richard Nixon's immoral Southern Strategy. To their shame, the modern resurgence of the Republican Party in the South was based on racism. We could hope that the inherotors of this wretched legacy would try to correct for their sordid legacy. Instead, they do not react at all until caught in public and then shrug it off as a case of poor taste.
That should be unacceptable. We should not shrug this off as "poor taste". That email picture is indicative of a sick acceptance of racism that is all too common. We need to say to these people- Take your sick minds and get out of the People's House. Good-bye Diane Black. Good Riddance Ron Ramsey. Take your tolerance of intolerance home with you.

By: JazzWaves72Luver on 6/23/09 at 12:59

To 'joew': Truer words were never spoken. White America needs to stand up and be counted on this one. Alas, I fear once again, here in Tennessee, it will dodge the bullet. Sen. Black and her staff aide will suffer thru being the political deadweights they have become but that's about all that will befall them, short of a major shift in Tennesseans' thinking/voting and a subsequent shift in the balance of power in the General Assembly.

This kind of incident doesn't help sell Tennessee on the world stage, as our governor is trying to do right now in Switzerland, or is it Austria! Ms Goforth violated the state's Code of Official Conduct, Acceptable Use of State Property/Electronic Network policies and exposed herself as creating a hostile work environment for African American state employees at Legislative Plaza and members of the general public. A quick review of the state's Non-Harassment Work Environment Policy shows how her actions breached this nondiscrimination tenet of state and federal laws! With twenty years service to her credit, she has no excuse for her conduct. Young Mr. Graves deserves the letter of reprimand, Ms Goforth should have gotten the dismissal.

TNGOP, you have some serious housecleaning to do. Please pick up the broom and get to sweeping!

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