Race is complicated

3 days ago no one had heard of Shirley Sherrod who turns out to be the wife of Charles Sherrod, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

The Nation reports on Melissa Harris-Lacewell’s appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

Up until a few days ago, most of the nation didn’t know who Shirley Sherrod was, but for people who have made a life and a career out of studying civil rights, like Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Lacewell, that name was no news to them. Shirley Sherrod is the wife of Charles Sherrod, a foundational member of the Civil Rights Movement and one of the founders of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lacewell explains that Sherrod “was not just a bureaucrat working away in Georgia; this is a woman who is part of a family that has made real contributions to advancing the conversation on race in America.”

And even though right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart only showed a short excerpt of Shirley Sherrod’s NAACP banquet speech and the administration rushed to judgment, Harris-Lacewell told Morning Joe that some good could come out of this scenario. She says that a national conversation on race is a bad idea, but a national classroom on race should be considered. Embedded under all of this mess is a beautiful story of Sherrod, the Spooner Family and interracial cooperation around issues of justice, Harris-Lacewell says. “The real narrative that Ms. Sherrod was telling is the narrative of someone who’s father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, who developed prejudices and yet found a way through her advocacy and work to be a true advocate for this white farm family.”

And lest we forget, the NAACP also rushed to judgement by first applauding her dismissal.  I guess we can forgive Ben Jealous who is too young to have lived though the SNCC days or the segregated schools attended by Shirley Sherrod.  Did he recognize the last name, I wonder.  The white family she helped, the Spooners, jumped to her defense.

Image: Former Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod

For wisdom on this issue, I turn to Eugene Robinson’s column in today’s Washington Post.

After the Shirley Sherrod episode, there’s no longer any need to mince words: A cynical right-wing propaganda machine is peddling the poisonous fiction that when African Americans or other minorities reach positions of power, they seek some kind of revenge against whites.

A few of the purveyors of this bigoted nonsense might actually believe it. Most of them, however, are merely seeking political gain by inviting white voters to question the motives and good faith of the nation’s first African American president. This is really about tearing Barack Obama down.

It looked like a clear case of black racism in action. Within hours, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had forced her to resign. The NAACP, under attack from the right for having denounced racism in the Tea Party movement, issued a statement blasting Sherrod and condemning her attitude as unacceptable.

But Breitbart had overstepped. The full video of Sherrod’s speech showed that she wasn’t bragging about being a racist, she was telling what amounted to a parable about prejudice and reconciliation. For one thing, the incident happened in 1986, when she was working for a nonprofit, long before she joined the federal government. For another, she helped that white man and his family save their farm, and they became friends. Through him, she said, she learned to look past race toward our common humanity.

In effect, she was telling the story of America’s struggle with race, but with the roles reversed. For hundreds of years, black people were enslaved, oppressed and discriminated against by whites — until the civil rights movement gave us all a path toward redemption.

So why was she forced to pull over and text a resignation?  Robinson explains

The Sherrod case has fully exposed the right-wing campaign to use racial fear to destroy Obama’s presidency, and I hope the effect is to finally stiffen some spines in the administration. The way to deal with bullies is to confront them, not run away. Yet Sherrod was fired before even being allowed to tell her side of the story. She said the official who carried out the execution explained that she had to resign immediately because the story was going to be on Glenn Beck’s show that evening. Ironically, Beck was the only Fox host who, upon hearing the rest of Sherrod’s speech, promptly called for her to be reinstated. On Wednesday, Vilsack offered to rehire her.

Shirley Sherrod stuck to her principles and stood her ground. I hope the White House learns a lesson.

Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture has apologized and offered her a job.  President Obama called to apologize.  It seems unlikely at this writing that she will go back to work for the USDA, but one can never tell.

The New York Times story points out

That, however, is unlikely to be the end of it for Mr. Obama, who has struggled since the beginning of his presidency with whether, when and how to deal with volatile matters of race. No matter how hard his White House tries to keep the issue from defining his presidency, it keeps popping back up, fueled in part by high expectations from the left for the first black president, and in part by tactical opposition politics on the right.

The Sherrod flap spotlighted how Mr. Obama is caught between these competing political forces, and renewed criticism from some of his supporters, especially prominent African-Americans, that he has been too defensive in dealing with matters of race — and too quick to react to criticism from the right

“I think what you see in this White House is a hypersensitivity about issues of race, that has them often leaning too far to avoid confronting these issues, and in so doing lays the foundation for the very problem they would like to avoid,” said Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an advocacy group here.

I don’t pretend to know what the President should do.  On one hand you have the right including leaders like Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party quick to find reverse racism, i.e. favoritism, is anything that the President tries to do.  It is unlikely that given what is happened Congress will vote to fund the settlement for black farmers denied loans and other benefits for which he requested an appropriation.   The lawsuit was settled in 1999, but farmers have never seen a penny.  According the NPR story, some of them are hopeful that the Shirley Sherrod incident will help move things along, but I am afraid just the opposite will happen.  I hope they are right.

A small group of black farmers rally at the Agriculture Department

The White House may have, as Eugene Robinson hopes, learned the lesson not to react without all the facts.  But I fear that race is still an issue that divides us to the point we can’t talk about it.  During the Lincoln-Douglas debates. the part of Andrew Breitbart/Glenn Beck was played by Stephen Douglas.  Douglas said “I do not regard the negro as my equal, and positively deny that he is any kin to me whatsoever.”  The problem for all the modern day Stephen Douglas’s is that a black man has been elected President.  The problem for Barack Obama is being the first.  And the ultimate irony is that it is almost exactly one year since Henry Lewis Gates was arrested.

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