If anyone had a reason to make a racist rant about sticking it to whitey, it was Shirley Sherrod.
This is a woman who lived through a time when racism was more than an invisible injustice that infects our institutions. Shirley Sherrod has lived with the kind of racism that marches up to your front door and batters its way inside – like it did in 1965 when her father was murdered by a white man who went unprosecuted and unpunished, despite – as she tells it – the presence of three witnesses to the crime.
More Opinion: Hopefully, Sherrod Case Will Force Honest Discussion About Race
It’s the kind of formative experience that could have turned someone like Shirley Sherrod into (as conservative blogger and Tea Party supporter Andrew Breitbart suggested with the clip he posted to his website) a racist who was reluctant to offer the full force of her support to a white farmer who’d come to her for help.
Instead – as is clear from viewing her near 45-minute speech in its entirety – Mrs. Sherrod’s life experiences forged her into someone who embodied the conviction that – as President Obama said in his speech on race -- “working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”
Shirley Sherrod overcame her prejudices against Roger Spooner, the white farmer who came into her office that day and – by his own admission – saved his farm, and went on to help many others, both white and black.
After her anecdote about Mr. Spooner, she went on in her speech on to condemn racism as an impediment that keeps us all divided against the real enemy – the tendency of power to perpetuate itself at the expense of those who are powerless.
“I’ve come to realize that we have to work together,” said Mrs. Sherrod. “Race exists but it doesn’t matter. That division is still here but our communities are not going to thrive…if we can’t figure it out.”
From her appointed position as state director of the USDA Rural Development in Georgia, Mrs. Sherrod was charged with creating jobs in Georgia, a state with near 10% unemployment. The knee-jerk reaction to an accuser who cried racism has robbed the state of a valuable employee during these difficult times.
Had the Tea Party actually taken to the time to watch the rest of her speech – instead of vilifying her for a piece of it - they would have known that she has made a living out of standing up for the kind of small town, everyday, “real Americans” who the party claims to represent.
Both she, and her husband, Charles Sherrod, were deeply involved in Jim Crow-era civil rights work against the kind of racism that – during that time in the South -- bore strange fruit when planted. Shirley Sherrod is someone who possesses the courage of her convictions and through her work in both in civil service and civil rights, she is worthy of praise and acknowledgement.
Instead, she was fired from her job without having the opportunity to present her case, and roundly condemned as a racist for her troubles, all on the strength (or the weakness) of a lie. She deserves better than this. And so does our national conversation about race.
The White House has since issued an apology for what was, at best, its tacit approval of the decision to relieve Mrs. Sherrod of her post without first considering all of the facts. And with a historic Wall Street reform bill on his plate, and a tentatively tamed oil catastrophe still threatening to bubble up again at any moment, it’s easy to understand how President Obama may not have given the consideration the was due to this latest volley in the not-so-post-race wars.
But he should know better than anyone what happens when a live grenade like race is thrown into the already heated pressure cooker of America’s political landscape, and then quickly zapped in the 24-hour news cycle microwave.
Things have a tendency to blow up.
A few out of context sound snippets from the First Lady and Pastor Jeremiah Wright threatened to derail Obama’s campaign when he was a candidate. Instead of the kind of hair-trigger reaction that lost Shirley Sherrod her job, President Obama took a stand, and gave a measured, thoughtful, and nuanced lecture that teased out the complexities of America’s peculiar brand of racism.
It was a rare and historic moment of on the record real-talk about race from a public official. But it is undermined by the appearance that our leader can be so easily spooked into capitulation when the specter of race becomes politically inconvenient.
We are a nation that expends billions of dollars and thousands of lives to face down violent extremists worldwide. We cannot fold like a paper tiger from our own demons at home.
President Obama is in a position to set an example for us to rise above the characterization of our country described in another candid race-talk moment by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder – that we tend to be a “nation of cowards” when it comes to talking about race.
Obama’s carefully considered analysis set a benchmark that he should return to in moments like this when he chooses to wade into these troubled waters. Those who voted him into office with the expectation that he would do so – indeed the subject of race itself - should demand nothing less.
Because the alternative is what we’ve witnessed over the last week - a conversation that quickly devolves into the kind of “You’re a racist! No, YOU’RE a racist!” tit-for-tatism that creates far more heat than light.
The latest fire is already dying out. Apologies have been offered and accepted and the news cycle will turn once again, inevitably, to something else. And just as inevitably, we’ll find ourselves again reading racism in the headlines.
Hopefully, the next time, as we muddle our way through the difficult discussion, President Obama will lead instead of follow, and, for a second time, elevate us all from the low hanging fruit to higher ground. He would be wise to reread his old speech, and maybe give a listen to the words of Shirley Sherrod that didn’t make news: “Life is a grindstone. But whether it grinds us down or polishes us up depends on us.”