Major news outlets have retracted parts of stories suggesting that ACORN ‘pimp’ film-maker James O’Keefe was racially motivated in his pursuit of the nonprofit group that focuses on helping minorities, but a Raw Story review of O’Keefe’s earlier efforts shows the conservative operative has never been afraid to provoke racial discussions.
The ACORN films created by O’Keefe and his partner Hannah Giles, who played the role of a prostitute, appeared to show ACORN employees in five cities providing guidance on how to avoid detection from tax authorities and law enforcement on income from prostitution. After the release of the videos last month, the U.S. Census cut all ties to ACORN, the House of Representatives voted 345-75 to deny all federal funds to the group and the Senate voted to eliminate ACORN’s access to housing and community grant funding.
Since then, O’Keefe has conducted few interviews, leaving many curious about what led him to target ACORN for investigation. While some of those who know O’Keefe say he enjoys exposing illegal activity in leftist organizations, ACORN officials and others have wondered if race was a motivating factor since the group largely serves minority communities.
O’Keefe himself told The Washington Post the day he agreed to work with Giles on the undercover project he was “upset” after watching online videos of ACORN employees busting through locks on foreclosed homes.
Morton Blackwell, the president of the conservative Leadership Institute in Northern Virginia that once employed O’Keefe, told The Star-Ledger that the Rutgers grad “wanted to go out and catch leftists breaking the law.”
“His opinion was — and it’s certainly been borne out — that there is an enormous amount of scandalous and illegal things going on that they were getting away with,” Blackwell told the paper.
But ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis, who authorized the firings of several employees implicated in O’Keefe’s videos, brought race into the debate over the videos during an interview with C-SPAN.
“I do think it is disturbing, however, that if you want to go undercover, to come into an organization that 99 percent is black and brown people that you would think to dress up as a pimp and a prostitute and sort of bully your way into these offices,” Lewis said. “I think that says a little bit about what Mr. O’Keefe thinks that a black and brown organization would go for.”
A Raw Story review of O’Keefe’s earlier work suggests he certainly doesn’t shy away from race issues: A younger O’Keefe once held an “affirmative action bake sale” where he and other organizers sold baked goods for different prices based on the purchaser’s race. In other satirical stunts, he held meetings with Rutgers University officials asking them to ban Lucky Charms because he felt their symbols discriminated against Irish-Americans and made phone calls to Planned Parenthood asking them if he could donate money as long as it only went to abort black babies. After the conservative newspaper he founded at Rutgers University fired its faculty adviser, O’Keefe wrote in The Centurion that the former adviser had accused the publication of promoting “white hysteria.”
The one-time faculty adviser, Rutgers University Professor James Livingston, told Raw Story that James O’Keefe is “intellectually and emotionally cramped,” but “not a dangerous guy.” He said he would not describe O’Keefe as racist and was unsure whether he had ever accused the paper’s editors of promoting “white hysteria,” although Raw Story notes Livingston’s blog Politics & Letters did categorize the first edition of The Centurion as having “a lot of white male hysteria.”
” I think they did suffer from the idea that ‘Oh my God, our country is being invaded and taken over by people of color,'” Livingston told Raw Story. “They pretty clearly suffered from that syndrome, maybe even before it became popular.”
Livingston served as the adviser to the conservative campus paper O’Keefe started in 2004 for only three months. Livingston, who calls himself “residually Marxist, socialist, feminist, and liberal,” says he offered to assume the adviser position when no other Rutgers faculty member would do so. He says he had a deal with O’Keefe that he would take the job, and leave the students alone to create the paper, as long as he was allowed to file an unedited column in each issue from his point of view.
Shortly thereafter, the paper fired Livingston after he fought with the staff about their desire to publish rejoinders to his essays.
Race is a common theme in The Centurion issues that were published under O’Keefe’s tenure. In the September 2005 issue “Abandon all hope ye who enter here: Corrupt Bureaucrats, Intellectual Morons and Apathetic Students at Rutgers University,” O’Keefe pens an essay that decries the impact multi-culturalism has had on Rutgers curriculum.
“To the multi-culturalist, appreciation for American Culture is completely baseless, founded only in prejudices and propaganda perpetuated by ignorant, racist dead white men,” O’Keefe wrote. He went on to say “Many students realize that if Maya Angelou is great literature, there is nothing to be learned from literature.”
The article was accompanied by a photo of a group of older white male professors captioned “Rutgers Professors, pipes, bow-ties and sport-jackets, Circa 1940” next to a photo of two African-American professors captioned “Rutgers History Professors Mia Bay and Herman L. Bennett: Dreadlocks and t-shirts, Circa 2005.”
O’Keefe’s essay also faults affirmative action for producing a “segregated campus.” He writes: “White students are contemptuous of black students and athletes with lower admissions standards and doubt their merits, even though they deny doing so.”
A photo placed next to this portion of the article depicts a group of youthful faces with lines connecting SAT scores to some of them: the white boy is depicted as having an SAT score of 1200, the black girl an SAT score of 900, and a girl that appears to be Latina is linked to an SAT score of 950.
O’Keefe did not respond to Raw Story requests for comment about the photos, including whether he had any way of certifying the SAT scores belonged to the individuals pictured or whether he had received permission from the people to run a photo linking their likenesses to SAT scores.
He did reply to a Facebook message from a Raw Story reporter telling her: “Why don’t you dig into ACORN, its employees, or its management, and their ‘college days’?”
Livingston described O’Keefe as a “nice kid.”
“He’s very polite, he has good manners, he’s well groomed, but damn, you want to be able to say to him, are you really this pissed off at people who have less than you do?” Livingston said. “How can you be so angry at them? What does it do for you?”
Race also plays a role in several of O’Keefe’s prior forays into taped stunts: At 22, he called a Planned Parenthood office to see if they would accept donations to abort black babies saying “there’s too many black people in Ohio, so I’m just trying to do my part.”
While still in college, O’Keefe and two other students petitioned Rutgers officials to remove the cereal Lucky Charms from the student cafeteria saying it’s use of the leprechaun marketing symbol is offensive to Irish-Americans such as himself.
“It mocks our history, our context, our identity and it’s just unacceptable,” O’Keefe told the school official charged with hearing his complaint. Upon leaving the meeting, O’Keefe called it a success, saying “We have successfully ended Irish bigotry and racism from the cafeteria–which is great–because this right here this is one of the largest and most prominent forms of bigotry, stereotypes and discrimination in the university.”
Livingston said his general impression of O’Keefe and The Centurion staff was that “these guys are stuck at a certain level of anger.”
“They feel so alone, so isolated, and like most radicals—he believes he is right and it’s too bad about the rest of us that we’re wrong,” Livingston told Raw Story. “He feels he should be able to impose his views on us any way he can.”
In O’Keefe’s December 2005 farewell letter to Centurion readers entitled “I Have a Dream,” he again addresses race: “The pseudo-religious rhetoric of diversity has replaced the great rhetorical social questions of Plato and Aristotle; the relationship between God and man, virtue and vice, heroism and cowardice, and beauty and wisdom. These questions have been replaced with an obsession, not of veritas, but with skin color.”
Regardless of whether O’Keefe or his detractors are the ones obsessed with race, his work has undeniably brought many questions about ACORN’s oversight to the forefront. The group is in the midst of an internal investigation this week led by former Massachusetts attorney general Scott Harshbarger.
People may disagree about the motivations of the filmmakers behind the lens, but no one is standing up for the behavior captured by the camera.