Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Shirley Sherrod and Teachable Moments

There's a lot that could be said about the Shirley Sherrod incident that was all over the news last week. For those who don't follow politics, here's a quick summary. It all started when Andrew Breitbart posted the following video in this post at BigGovernment.com:

This video excerpt appears to show blatant racism by Shirley Sherrod, USDA Georgia Director of Rural Development, towards a white farmer, presumably while acting as a government official.

The video quickly went viral through the blogosphere and the reaction was swift. Within a few hours, Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, had forced Sherrod to resign. Contrary to what is widely believed, Fox News did not air anything on the matter until AFTER Sherrod had already resigned. See this post at Johnny Dollar for an incredible list of media outlets that got this part of the story wrong.

That evening, the NAACP even piled on with the following statement:

We concur with US Agriculture Secretary Vilsack in accepting the resignation of Shirley Sherrod for her remarks at a local NAACP Freedom Fund banquet.

Racism is about the abuse of power. Sherrod had it in her position at USDA. According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race.

We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers.

Her actions were shameful. While she went on to explain in the story that she ultimately realized her mistake, as well as the common predicament of working people of all races, she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done to this man.

The reaction from many in the audience is disturbing. We will be looking into the behavior of NAACP representatives at this local event and take any appropriate action.

We thank those who brought this to our national office's attention, as there are hundreds of local fundraising dinners each year.

The next day, the NAACP posted a second statement retracting their first, and posted the full 43 minute video, linked here:

The full video put the previous excerpt in a very different context. I have watched the full 43 minutes, and the full story Sherrod tells starts with her youth and the horrible racism she experienced at that time. Her father was one of the leading black members of their community in Georgia. He was murdered when she was 17 and a grand jury would not indict his white murderer because he was black, even though there were 3 witnesses. Shortly after, she recounts an incident where KKK members circled the front of their house as she hid in the house and her mother confronted them on the porch with gun in hand. Numerous black members of the community circled the intruders and forced them to leave.

Before that, Sherrod was itching to leave the South and head north. But given what had happened, she resolved herself to stay and fight for change. She then says her intention for a long time was to help black folks. Later she was working at a non-profit and ran into the first time that a white family in danger of losing their farm asked for help. She struggled with her (understandable) racial animosity toward whites and didn't initially help the white farmers as much as she could have, instead sending them to a white lawyer, one of their "own kind". That is the part the initial video excerpt showed.

However, she goes onto say that was the point it was revealed to her that it wasn't just about black and white, but rich and poor. When the white farmers called back later saying the lawyer hadn't helped them much, she went to bat for them and helped them save the farm from bankruptcy. She ends up later saying that we have to get to a place where race exists, but it does not matter.

The story as a whole is a story of her life and how she overcame much of the resentment she had from the racial events that happened during her youth.

The media coverage rapidly switched the other way, calling for Sherrod to be given her job back, and slamming Breitbart and Fox News for a vicious attack on Sherrod. Sherrod has almost achieved sainthood status.

I have already linked to the Johnny Dollar piece that showed that the attack on Fox News was unwarranted. As far as I can tell, the news shows played it safe and were trying to fact check it before running anything. It is true that Bill O'Reilly had already taped a segment in which he called for Sherrod to be fired, but that hadn't even aired by the time that Sherrod had been forced to resign. The following day, O'Reilly apologized for not doing his homework.

In Breitbart's defense, he says the two excerpts he showed in his original post was all that he had at the time. Here he is on Hannity's TV show explaining how he came by the video -- this aired the day after the BigGovernment post:

Breitbart can be blamed for not being more careful before posting the excerpts he had, but the same video clip that he saw also fooled the Obama administration, the NAACP, Rachel Maddow, Bill O'Reilly, and countless others. Most importantly, Breitbart did not force her to resign without so much as allowing her to explain the comments (like the Obama administration did) and did not condemn her despite having the full video in his possession (like the NAACP did).

Unfortunately, Breitbart has never apologized for the initial post, knowing what he knows now about it. Breitbart maintains that his whole point was to point out the hypocrisy of the NAACP in its attack on the Tea Parties, which is in fact the point he was trying to make. He still thinks that the murmurs of agreement and laughter among the crowd prove his point, that the NAACP was approving of the racist treatment of the white farmers before they could have known the whole story of her change of heart.

In my opinion, I did not find Sherrod's 43 minutes objectionable as a whole. I would point out, though, that if any white person had talked about blacks the way she did (e.g., "own kind"), they would have been forced to resign for that alone. And it is clear to me, even as she shared her story, that she still sees everything through racial lenses. For example, at one part of the speech, she accuses Republicans of opposing the health care bill because Obama is black.

I am also disturbed by further statements that Shirley Sherrod has since made which show she is still not to the point where race exists but doesn't matter to her. Here is one such clip (jump to 1:50):

I've seen several other problematic statements and may post them if I run across them again.

In addition, further information about the Sherrod's and one particular quote from her husband are also cause for concern:

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