On the same day as Roseanne Barr's racist tweet referring to a former Obama advisor as the child of an "ape," MSNBC hosted a town hall that focused on racial tensions and recent events highlighting discrimination against the black community. As the town hall group discussed Barr's tweet in the context of the president's often inflammatory rhetoric, one of the town hall participants, NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill, explained during the Everyday Racism in America town hall why Barr's tweet could be so damaging to minorities.
The discussion included MSNBC hosts Joy Reid and Chris Hayes, Reverend Al Sharpton, and Valerie Jarrett, the former Obama advisor who was the target of Barr's tweets. "When you think about the kind of comment that Roseanne Barr made today, something that feeds into a kind of very old stereotype — that did not begin with her; that did not begin with Donald Trump — that dehumanizes black people, " said Ifill. "When you dehumanize people, you can do anything to them."
Ifill went on to list examples of the discrepancies in police treatment and legal punishment that black people face when compared to white people, ending with a reference to controversial police shootings.
"You can do all of these things because you don't think that they're exactly human, and so, this rhetoric has real consequences to the legal landscape that we face," Ifill explained. "When people see these things on their television, it begins with a message that has been said about who we are and to the extent that we are 'othered' in this way, to the extent we are regarded as something less than human, something less than a full citizen, something less than a person entitled to full dignity. It puts people in danger."
Ifill's point is that the casual use of racist language by high-profile people contributes to the marginalization of minority communities. Casual, hateful language that is normalized can affect how a person views someone of a different race, and that view can coalesce into discrimination and brutality. It's a point that resonated with the town hall crowd, and one that Sharpton responded to through the lens of the Trump presidency.
"When you have a president that started his political career on birtherism, saying that he [Obama] is not one of us, when he's done everything he could to do dog-whistling around this issue of race, people like Roseanne feel they're empowered," said Sharpton. "Well, they got the memo today, you're not empowered. People are not going to take it."
Barr's eponymous hit show Roseanne was canceled by ABC hours after Barr called Jarrett the baby of the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes in her now-deleted tweet. She later apologized, but the mea culpa wasn't enough to keep her safe; according to The Boston Globe, ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey said, in a statement, that Barr’s comment was ‘‘abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel the show.”
Jarrett also took the town hall opportunity to respond to Barr's tweet, after declining to comment earlier in the day. "First of all, I think we have to turn it into a teaching moment. I’m fine. I’m worried about all the people out there who don’t have a circle of friends and followers coming to their defense,” Jarrett said.
While Jarrett never mentioned Barr by name, she did discuss the impact of social media, saying that while it could help many people, it can also “dehumanize because it’s distant" and allows users to avoid looking "at the faces you’re attacking."
She placed a chunk of the blame on the Trump administration for allowing such attitudes to thrive, according to the New York Daily News.
"Tone does start up at the top, and we like to look up to our president and feel as though he reflects the values of our country," said Jarrett said. "It's up to all of us to push back."