On The Charge of Racism

Ken AshfordRaceLeave a Comment

This is the summer of the racism accusation.  It's full-on now.

In a way, it's nothing new.  As long as there has been racism in this country (which has been, well, since this country's founding), there have been accusations of racism.  Goes hand-in-hand.

But there's something new to it lately.  Apparently, white people can accuse black people of racism.  And that, somehow, is the moral equivalent of white people being racist against blacks.

Don't misunderstand me — I'm not saying that "black racists" don't exist.  Of course they do.  But I have yet to see one – certainly not in the public and political sphere.  Even Reverend Wright, Obama's supposed "mentor", didn't strike me as racist.  He was, at times, wary of white people — and given the times he lived through, I can certainly where that comes from.  In the same way that many Jews are still wary of Germans, many blacks are not at ease with the white power structure which had historically oppressed them.  But that's not racism — that's merely having a justifiable chip on the shoulder.  I know the difference, and I suspect most honest people do too.

So for the most part, when some black figure gets accused of racism, it's generally overblown, if not or an outright lie.  

Take, for example, a year or so ago when Glenn Beck casually referred to Obama as a racist.  He had to walk that statement back because as any sane critic of Obama would admit, there's simply no evidentiary basis for that.  None.  Nada.

Now comes Andrew Breitbart, the Joe McCarthy of the 21st century.  On his website yesterday, McCarthy posted a video of USDA worker Shirley Sherrod giving a speech to the NAACP last March:

We are in possession of a video from in which Shirley Sherrod, USDA Georgia Director of Rural Development, speaks at the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner in Georgia. In her meandering speech to what appears to be an all-black audience, this federally appointed executive bureaucrat lays out in stark detail, that her federal duties are managed through the prism of race and class distinctions.

In the first video, Sherrod describes how she racially discriminates against a white farmer. She describes how she is torn over how much she will choose to help him. And, she admits that she doesn’t do everything she can for him, because he is white. Eventually, her basic humanity informs that this white man is poor and needs help. But she decides that he should get help from “one of his own kind”. She refers him to a white lawyer.

Breitbart's description leaves something out, which is apparent to anyone watching his video.  The "white farmer" was acting with animosity and condescension toward Ms. Sherrod — he was the bigot.  And that's when Ms. Sherrod (according to her account) was "torn over how much" she would help this man.   Context is key:

Sherrod [told the Atlanta Journal Constitution] that what online viewers weren’t told in reports posted throughout the day Monday was that the tale she told at the banquet happened 24 years ago — before she got the USDA job — when she worked with the Georgia field office for the Federation of Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund.

Sherrod said the short video clip excluded the breadth of the story about how she eventually worked with the man over a two-year period to help ward off foreclosure of his farm, and how she eventually became friends with the farmer and his wife. […]

“The story helped me realize that race is not the issue, it’s about the people who have and the people who don’t. When I speak to groups, I try to speak about getting beyond the issue of race.

Nevertheless, the fallout from the video was swift and immediate.  Ms Sherrod was forced to resign for her "racism" and the NAACP issued a press release condemning her for her actions.  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack also issues a statement condemning her remarks. to the NAACP.  

Breitbart had his scalp, and the conservative blogs rejoiced.

But then something happened today.  We learned that the video was heavily edited.  We learned that Ms. Sherrod was using the incident with the white farmer — which happened in 1986 by the way — to explain how she overcame her prejudice against whites, even white bigots like the farmer in her anecdote.  That was the point of her little speech — about how she overcame her animosity toward this white farmer.  In fact, as she told the papers today, she even became friends with the farmer and his family.  Funny how you didn't see that in Breitbart's edited video.

Even the farmer's wife has spoken out to confirm Sherrod's account:

The wife of the white farmer allegedly discriminated against by the USDA's rural development director for Georgia said Shirley Sherrod "kept us out of bankruptcy."

Eloise Spooner, 82, awoke Tuesday to discover that Sherrod had lost her job after videotaped comments she made in March at a local NAACP banquet surfaced on the web.

Sherrod, who is black, told the crowd she didn't do everything she could to help a white farmer whom she said was condescending when he came to her for aid.

"What he didn't know while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me was, I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him," Sherrod said in the video, recorded March 27 in Douglas in southeast Georgia.

But Spooner, who considers Sherrod a "friend for life," said the federal official worked tirelessly to help the Iron City couple hold onto their land as they faced bankruptcy back in 1986.

Now, there are many angles to this controversy, but one of the saddest has to be this:  a right wing pundit posts an edited video which purports to show a "racist" USDA employee giving a lecture, and without investigation, the Obama Administration asks for (and gets) this woman's resignation… and the NAACP issues a statement condemning this woman.

The cowardly fear of the right is embarrassing.  [NOTE: The NAACP appears to be investigating the matter, in what seems to be a walkback from his statement of condemnation].

Which brings me back to the charges of racism.  It seems that the right is using the charge of racism as a sword, and a sword built on fabrication and lies.  It's time for those on the left not to cower in the face of baseless accusations, but instead, to fight back.

More from Think Progress.

LATE UPDATE: The NAACP backtracks and does the right thing.  An excerpt:

With regard to the initial media coverage of the resignation of USDA Official Shirley Sherrod, we have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias.

Having reviewed the full tape, spoken to Ms. Sherrod, and most importantly heard the testimony of the white farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans.   

The fact is Ms. Sherrod did help the white farmers mentioned in her speech.  They personally credit her with helping to save their family farm. 

Moreover, this incident and the lesson it prompted occurred more that 20 years before she went to work for USDA.

Finally, she was sharing this account as part of a story of transformation and redemption. In the full video, Ms.Sherrod says she realized that the dislocation of farmers is about “haves and have nots.”  "It’s not just about black people, it’s about poor people," says Sherrod in the speech. “We have to get to the point where race exists but it doesn’t matter.” 

This is a teachable moment, for activists and for journalists.