There’s a big gap between the ways race relations play out in the lives of everyday Americans and the way politicians and activists manipulate it in our national conversation to serve their own political needs.
This fact couldn’t be more pronounced than now – since the spat between the Tea Party and NAACP has turned into a sweeping national debate, taking into its wake ordinary citizens like Shirley Sherrod, the USDA employee who lost her job as a direct result of it.
See the Video: Shirley Sherrod Tells Her Side of the Story
Update: Sherrod Not Sure She Will Return to USDA
Be honest, Tea Partiers, there are racist elements in your organization.
Leaders of the movement – including Sarah Palin – refuse to acknowledge that fact. Doing so might mean political death since a fair percentage of the more fired up activists in the grassroots organization are social conservatives driven by an urge to “take back America.” They blame White “liberals” and a growing population of minorities for fostering an environment in America where, among other trespasses, it’s possible for an African American to become president.
So, Tea Party leaders and conservative bloggers turn a blind eye to the racism. Instead of addressing it and freeing their agenda from the racial crutch many use to prop it, they do unsavory things like manipulate videos to discredit critics who call them on the carpet for it.
That denial baffles historian and Spelman College professor Jelani Cobb, who believes the public holds Black leaders to a higher standard. Cobb argues that every Black elected official – including city aldermen, he adds for effect – have to go through a ritual of distancing themselves from and denouncing controversial African-American leaders and political movements in order to remain electable. So why do White officials, particularly conservative ones, he asks, get a pass?
This election year, some conservative politicians – many who should know better - have shamelessly served their re-election ambitions by tapping into that racist sentiment. In subtle and overt ways, President Obama’s race and the nationality of his father have been utilized to inject fear and suspicion among segments of White voters (the “Birthers”). This move, these political operatives hope, will galvanize voters to turn out to the polls in droves for the November 2010 elections.
The NAACP is well aware of this truth. So, perhaps, in the most expedient move of its recent history, it denounced racism in the Tea Party at its 2010 national convention. Considering the history and mission of the century-old organization, that was the natural thing to do. But, I’ll put money on this one: the significance and timing of this declaration was not lost on leaders of the civil rights organization. Campaign season is kicking into full gear in an election year in which both the Left and Right are positioning themselves to attract that unpredictable segment of Independent voters.
That move has sparked a national debate about race and, in unexpected ways, exposed the NAACP’s own reactionary posture when it comes to assumptions about race and politics. In the heat of a debate about race with the Tea Party, video surfaced on conservative Web sites of USDA official Shirley Sherrod making comments, which, when seen in isolation (or after a creative edit), appeared racist. The NAACP, more concerned about political expediency than doing the right thing, quickly denounced Sherrod instead of doing due diligence and investigating the context of her comments.
Although the NAACP has retracted its statement and issued an apology, Sherrod told NBC’s “Today Show” she is particularly hurt by the NAACP condemnation. She says she has spent all of her adult life seeking fairness and supporting causes of the civil rights organization.
Like the NAACP, in a similar knee-jerk and politically defensive reaction, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack swiftly asked for and accepted Sherrod’s resignation. And in a sad punctuation to the disappointing sequence of events, President Obama promptly stood by Vilsack’s decision. Now that the truth is out, the USDA and White House have reconsidered their decision and Sherrod might be offered her job again.
Considering their responses, the Obama administration and the NAACP got baited into playing the game of the Conservative bloggers and Fox News. What happened to the cool, logical president with a knack for paying attention to nuance and making decisions after meticulous analysis?
Sherrod, who grew up in the deep South and whose father was killed by a White farmer, has a life story imbued with the uglier side of America’s racial history. Yet, she has overcome it and become an example of how it is possible to look beyond race to the humanity of others.
There are so many echoes between the national debate happening now and the one that then-candidate Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright sparked during his 2008 election campaign. Maybe this is a teachable moment. Maybe it’s time for the president to make another speech on race that will encourage all Americans to move beyond the easy racial labels and challenge deep-rooted assumptions about race.
This election year, every individual needs to step back and take stock of how race plays out in the political arena. We must resist buying into easy manipulations of race and approach political decision-making with independent minds and positions based on hard facts and our own research.
Then, we must begin as a nation, to talk honestly and openly about race and move our conversations and understanding of race beyond the sound bites that drive up the ratings on cable news.