This case is a perfect example of what’s wrong with our national discourse on race. There are lot of problematic dynamics at work here.
There has been a firestorm of criticism over the administration’s handling of this situation, and rightly so; I’ll get to that point later in this post. But I think the first thing to note is that edited clip was part of a campaign to prove the existence of anti-white “racism” in the NAACP. As it turned out, what Breitbart framed as racist speech was actually a message against anti-white prejudice, and a story about a woman who learned through her faith and her work with the rural poor to overcome that prejudice in herself. The woman we were supposed to condemn as a racist turned out to be someone who has dedicated her life to working with the poor of all races, a person whom the supposed victims of her racism immediately rushed to defend. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is the best Andrew Breitbart could do. The fact that he had to go to such lengths to “find” an example of NAACP racism – that he had to concoct evidence of this by using a clip doctored to mean the opposite of what it actually meant – says volumes about the tenuous nature of Tea Partier criticisms of the NAACP as a “racist organization.”
Secondly, I’m struck by the false moral equivalence, again, between anti-white prejudice from blacks and anti-black prejudice from whites. Many on the right insist on the fiction that our national history of state-enabled discrimination and terrorism against blacks has nothing to do with black prejudice against whites, and on the complementary fiction that white fears of and prejudices against blacks have any rational basis. Sherrod talks in the video about how she grew up in a GA county where African Americans were murdered and lynched by whites with impunity, and got away with it. Her own father was murdered by a white man in front of three eyewitnesses and was never indicted. To use the same term and moral language to describe, on the one hand, Sherrod’s onetime suspicion of and antipathy towards white people, and on the other, the irrational fears and prejudices against black people of some members of the Tea Party (examples: calling Obama a witch doctor, or accusing him of wanting to institute white slavery), is a misleading and false moral equivalence.
This is also a story about the unproductive and misleading ways in which we frame having racist attitudes as a reflection on one’s character and moral state. When doing or saying something racist, or being a racist, is equated with being a bad person, it makes it impossible for people to have honest conversations about their own racism, even if it’s past racism from 24 years ago. It makes people believe that racist attitudes – no matter how far in the past, no matter if one is acknowledging them in an effort to move beyond them – are feelings they have to hide at all costs, and therefore makes it impossible to combat these attitudes. This is something that both anti-racists and people who derail conversations about race can be guilty of. The character assassination of Shirley Sherrod is only the latest volley in a battle between the NAACP and the Tea Party Movement about racist elements in the latter organization. Supporters of the TPM have responded to the NAACP resolution calling on their organization to denounce racist elements and speech in its ranks as though it were an accusation that the TPM as a whole was a racist organization, and had as its mission to further racist ends – in other words, they have responded as though the TPM were being accused of being an evil organization, rather than organization that had some morally suspect elements (for example, Sarah Palin: “The only purpose of such an unfair accusation of racism is to dissuade good Americans from joining the Tea Party movement or listening to the common sense message of Tea Party Americans who simply want government to abide by our Constitution . . . All decent Americans abhor racism. No one wants to be associated with any organization that is in any way racist in sentiment or origin . . . Thankfully, the Tea Party movement is not racist or motivated by racism.” ht Racialicious) Similarly, the NAACP responded to the edited clip of Sherrod as though she were a bad person whom they had to denounce and distance themselves from.
It’s very troubling that there’s no space in public discourse for people to admit to being wrong about having racist attitudes. Think about it – our government is run at the highest levels by mostly white people in their 60s and 70s, people who grew up in a segregated America where open racism was the norm. The odds that none of our elected officials have harbored or struggled with racist attitudes, now or in the past, completely beggars belief. Yet it would be political suicide for a politician to admit to having such attitudes today, and inadvisable to even admit to having had them at some point in the past. We have a basic inability to acknowledge as a country our history and its effects on how we relate to each other, and this has a a chilling effect on race relations. Sherrod is another innocent casualty of – as Eric Holder has put it – our national cowardice and dishonesty on matters of race.
My friend Stacia pointed out that Sherrod is also a casualty of our sound bite society, where reputations are made or destroyed over clips and excerpts that are easily manipulated through editing and taking things out of context. Breitbart and whoever sent him the clip have manufactured a national firestorm out of a doctored version of events. Shirley Sherrod’s career of helping poor and disenfranchised farmers, and her story of how she overcame her prejudices, have been reduced to a 3 minute clip intended to assassinate her character and malign the work of the NAACP.
I’d add to this point that we need as anti-racists to think carefully about whether it’s always productive to call for someone’s firing or resignation when they say or do something racist. It shouldn’t necessarily be the case that someone should lose their entire livelihood or reputation for that behavior; this should depend on the nature and severity of the behavior, and how the person responds to having their offensive behavior pointed out to them. Otherwise we play right into the idea that racist speech or behavior is something that only “bad” people do, and that a person’s entire character can be accurately assessed by one moment in which they do or say something offensive. (To be clear, this is a general point and less about Sherrod – if her out of context comments had in fact accurately described how she did her job at the USDA, her firing would have been completely justified).
To say that the initial responses of the NAACP, the USDA, and the White House were disappointing would be a massive understatement. It was unspeakably unprofessional of USDA officials to pressure Sherrod without giving her so much as one day to explain herself or have the situation reviewed. This treatment and the White House’s defense of it were acts of utter cowardice. I’m left wondering why the Obama administration is so terrified of allegations of racism that it’s willing to throw all notions of due process or waiting to hear all the facts out the window. Are they that afraid of conservative allegations of racism? Do they have so little confidence in their ability to convince the public of their commitment to Americans of all races?
The NAACP has said that they were “snookered” by maliciously edited video. Well, they were, as were the USDA and the White House. But the question is, why were they so easy to snooker? And why were they so quick to throw Shirley Sherrod under the bus? The President and VP have been bending over backwards to defend the Tea Party Movement against charges of racism, despite a well documented history of problems with racist speech at the highest levels of the TPM; yet they were lightning quick to dismiss an individual black woman over unverified charges of racism. This is no coincidence; this is a story about the privileges that whiteness, maleness, power, and status confer. The TPM is an influential, well-connected, mostly white organization, backed by popular pols and associated with white disaffection with the direction of the country; the administration is terrified to touch them. A lone black woman like Shirley Sherrod, though, is apparently an appropriate target of withering criticism and disenfranchisement by the NAACP, USDA, and White House. Make no mistake, this is a story about the perceived expendability of black women. In this case they made the serious error in judgment of assuming Sherrod would slink away quietly.
Even in the wake of the revelations that the video clip was misleading, many conservatives are still claiming that this incident shows that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones – in other words, that Sherrod and other NAACP supporters can be racists just like TPM supporters. I keep coming back to the irony that supporters of the TPM are for the most part Christians, like Shirley Sherrod, who say they believe in the possibility of repentance and the hope of redemption. The difference between Shirley Sherrod and her TPM critics is that Shirley Sherrod owned up to her sin of racial prejudice, and repented of it. She gave a speech at an NAACP meeting calling her listeners to the same repentance, to forgiveness of a society and government that had deeply wounded them, and to embrace reconciliation with all people. Meanwhile, the TPM’s response to allegations of racism has not been to examine themselves and repent as necessary, but to point fingers and call for the heads of people like Shirley Sherrod – a woman they could have seen as a example of the redemption they say they believe Christ offers.
Shirley Sherrod should be held up as an example and hero for us all. She could have continued just “doing enough” for white people and feeling hatred for them, and felt justified in doing so, given all had been taken from her, her loved ones, and her community by white people, with the support of a mostly white government. But she chose not to. She chose to love.