Shirley Sherrod incident shows race in U.S. remains touchy subject

Sometimes you just have to pile on, which is why I feel compelled to weigh in on the firing and potential rehiring of Shirley Sherrod by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. The executing arm may have been that of Secretary Tom Vilsack, but the Obama administration is on the hook for this unprofessional and egregious act of political correctness. That Vilsack took the action based on one piece of video lifted out of context by the sleazy likes of Andrew Breitbart is disconcerting in the extreme, especially because Breitbart’s baldfaced motive was to hijack public discussion, led by the NAACP, about the Tea Party movement’s racist members.

The goal of the 2+ minute Breitbart video, as explained by former MA Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, was “to prove that the Department of Agriculture was engaged in illegal, fraudulent activities that were supported by NAACP and Democratic and progressive leaders, including the Obama administration.”  The video, viewed in its 43-minute entirety,  showed Sherrod at an NAACP event last March 27th telling how in 1986, dealing with a particular white farmer, she had grappled with race. Forty-five years ago, her father was murdered by a white man, who was never prosecuted. She described how she had overcome an instinct to stereotype. Her March 2010 speech described her very personal odyssey of understanding and growth and revealed how she had come to recognize that the “struggle is about poor people.” The problem we face, she said, is not white, black or Hispanic. The problem is poverty, lack of access and lack of power.

Enter Fox’s Breitbart, who lifted a small portion of her speech to demonstrate that not only was the Obama administration engaging in a form of racism but the NAACP was condoning it. And the administration, so fearful of being viewed as biased (which was part of USDA history), fired Sherrod (excuse me, demanded her resignation) without a) considering the source of the accusation or b) reviewing her speech in its entirety. Even the NAACP dumped on her. Shame on them. And, of course, the mainstream media, no less than the talking heads on the fringe, bought the lie and joined the collective expression of outrage and condemnation. It wasn’t just Fox; it was across the spectrum, including the likes of MSNBC.

When the truth was revealed, Breitbart compounded the communications felony on CNN by suggesting that maybe the white farmer and his wife, who defended Sherrod, were imposters planted by Sherrod to save her job!

Secretary Vilsack and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs apologized to Sherrod. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly apologized for his buy-in. As a Boston Globe editorial pointed out, this incident should give pause to anyone who has ever said anything that, taken out of context, could prove to be embarrassing. The incident also shows how race is still a third rail in American life.

It’s complicated. As the NY Times’ Maureen Dowd observed, Obama’s “closest advisers — some of the same ones who urged him not to make the race speech after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright issue exploded — are so terrified that Fox and the Tea Party will paint Obama as doing more for blacks that they tiptoe around and do less.”

Two years ago, pundits referred to Obama as “post racial,” meaning that the electorate saw his qualifications and not his race as determinative. The Sherrod case shows that race remains an issue in a perverse way, a hyper-sensitivity that regrettably can override common sense and fair play.

As Sherrod told the NAACP in that March meeting, paraphrasing author Toni Morrison, we have to get to the point where race exists but doesn’t matter. But we won’t get there if politicians and the media don’t do their homework and allow themselves to be manipulated.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

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