Prepare to be outraged: A white male shopper at a grocery store in Cobb County, Georgia, told Erica Thomas, a pregnant black woman and state legislator, to go back to where she came from. His verbal assault echoed the racist remarks of President Trump. “People need to see the hate that is going on in this country,” a tearful Thomas told her Facebook followers in a heart-wrenching video.
Are you angry yet? Well, you were fooled. The above account was one-sided and misleading, and now even Thomas has suggested that she can’t actually recall if the man, Eric Sparkes, literally told her to go back to where she came from, or merely said other unpleasant things. Moreover, Sparkes claims he is a Cuban and an anti-Trump Democrat. This was more than enough new information for some people to file this incident under hate hoaxes and consign Thomas to the status of a Jussie Smollett or Nathan Phillips (whose sins were far greater).
Having read this new information, maybe you’re now outraged about having been driven to outrage in the first place. For that you should direct your ire to local media outlet WSB-TV, which hauled Thomas back to the grocery store over the weekend to film a segment about the episode, and also at The New York Times, which for some reason decided that what is ultimately a trivial argument between two stressed-out shoppers should be turned into a national news story. The Times‘s initial headline, “‘Go Back to Where You Came From,’ Georgia Lawmaker Says She Was Told,” was of course specifically designed to spin this story as an outgrowth of Trump’s poisonous rhetoric. The new headline, “‘The Hate Is Real’: Black Georgia Lawmaker Says She Was Berated at Supermarket,” tries to achieve the same, while tacitly conceding that there’s uncertainty over the back-to-where-you-came-from language.
Here’s the de-sensationalized version of events: Thomas and Sparkes agree that she had opted to use the express checkout option, even though she had more groceries than the line allows. This irked Sparkes, despite the fact that two other lanes were open and available. He snitched on Sparkes to customer service and was informed that company policy forbade the store from doing anything about it, but that Sparkes could take matters into his own hands if he wished. Ultimately, Sparkes approached Thomas, and the two had words. Which words, precisely, is up for debate.
“This woman, Ms. Thomas, is playing the victim,” Sparkes told WSB TV, telling his side of the story. “I am a Democrat, I vote Democrat party line. All my statements are anti-Trump, anti-Republican, anti-bigotry.”
Sparkes utterly denied that there was anything racially tinged about his comments to Thomas. His strong denial, political affiliation, and the fact that Thomas backtracked slightly are being treated as conclusive evidence by Team Hoax. Of course, it’s easy to go too far in this direction. Sparkes admits, for instance, that he called Thomas “lazy”and a “bitch.” Maybe his comments weren’t racist, but if you’re calling a pregnant lady a lazy bitch, you aren’t exactly the good guy, and it would be a stretch to label your conduct as non-hateful. Perhaps this is a sign of our incredibly politicized times: an accusation of racism must be rebutted at all costs, while mundane cruelty, seemingly tinged with sexism, is considered above board.
In truth, both Thomas and Sparkes seemed like they behaved obnoxiously. Sparkes should have minded his own business, especially given his admission that Thomas’s abuse of the express checkout lane didn’t even inconvenience him—there were other lanes. But Thomas quite clearly chose to escalate—and publicize—the incident, injecting it with political urgency and slotting it into a national narrative the media would find too tempting to ignore.
Thus a minor, trivial encounter between two stressed shoppers—a story so old that it is not actually a story—was transformed into a viral social media moment, and then served up to outrage-hungry readers by national news media. I hope everybody is good and mad.