By now, we have all heard at least some of what Shirley Sherrod has gone through. Not too long ago, she was leading a quiet life as a rural development director in Georgia for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
And then a short video posted by conservative media critic Andrew Breitbart appeared. In it, Sherrod, who is Black, was seen speaking at a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1986. She told her audience that she didn’t give a white farmer, Roger Spooner, “the full force of what I could do” after he asked her for assistance. That is, Sherrod didn’t help him so much because of his race.
Amid recent accusations of ‘reverse racism,’ the White House and the NAACP were quick to squelch the issue. Sherrod was accused of being racist and, according to The Associated Press, was pressured into resigning by the White House, which she did.
The only problem was, as illustrated in the full video, Sherrod was actually telling a cautionary tale, not igniting the fires of reverse racism.
Sherrod told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Spooner initially acted like he was superior to her, but he was also asking for her help. In the full video, Sherrod said that she made a commitment at age 17 to help Black people — but only Black people. She said she later realized that racial separation was wrong and that “the struggle was really about poor people,” not race.
Sherrod became friends with the farmer and spent two years helping him avoid foreclosure. Eloise Spooner, the farmer’s wife, has publicly defended Sherrod, stating that Sherrod helped keep them out of bankruptcy and that she considers Sherrod a lifelong friend.
Why didn’t the USDA or the NAACP talk to Sherrod or Spooner or anyone before Sherrod was forced to resign?
It seems the Obama administration is so easily rattled by criticisms of racism that it will jump to the wrong conclusions without giving it a second thought. This time, it really came back to bite the administration. At the very least, the administration is acting contrite. Sherrod has been offered another job at the USDA, which she is currently considering. It has been reported that President Obama has personally called Sherrod to apologize.
In contrast, the NAACP seems defensive and is pointing fingers at Breitbart for creating a misleading video instead of pointing a finger at itself, for not investigating the matter at all before publicly condemning Sherrod. NAACP President Ben Jealous released a statement that said, “The tape of Ms. Sherrod’s speech at an NAACP banquet was deliberately edited to create a false impression of racial bias, and to create a controversy where none existed. This just shows the lengths to which extremist elements will go to discredit legitimate opposition.”
This goes to show that in post-racial America, we still aren’t talking about race. If the White House and the NAACP were truly open to the topic, this whole public relations disaster would have been avoided.
Congressman James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who is Black, told The New York Times, “I don’t think a single Black person was consulted before Shirley Sherrod was fired — I mean c’mon.”
“Some people over there (in the Obama administration) are not sensitive at all about race,” said Clyburn.
“They really feel that the extent to which [Obama] allows himself to talk about race would tend to pigeonhole him or cost him support, when a lot of people saw his election as a way to get the issue behind us. I don’t think people elected him to disengage on race. Just the opposite.”
In Seattle, we are not strangers to racially charged incidents. The recent incidents with the Seattle Police Department and the resignation of Marysville School Boardmember Michael Kundu come to mind.
However, we must do our best to not respond purely based on our emotions. We must stay calm and try to resolve issues rationally instead of resorting to name calling. When we are combative and accuse others of being racist without reasonable evidence, we may think we are standing up for social justice, but really, we are creating more division and antagonism.
In turn, while it is important to foster in young people a passion for community service, it’s also equally important to teach kids Sherrod’s message — that we shouldn’t just care about people who have the same racial or cultural background that we have; we should care about everyone who is suffering. ♦