Shirley Sherrod is opinionated. She’s also blunt, bold, and black.
She’s the daughter of a murder victim, a self-avowed tax-and-spend Democrat, and a proud supporter of President Barak Obama.
But one thing she’s not is a racist. At least, not the racist she's accused of being.
Let's Go to the Videotape
Sherrod, who burst onto the national stage this past Monday, has been accused of being a bigoted, self-serving government employee emblematic of all the sinister machinations the NAACP has perpetrated in the name of civil rights.
Back in March of this year, Sherrod, who until Monday was the USDA director for rural development in Georgia, was videotaped giving a speech to a local NAACP meeting in which she appears to brag about not wanting to help a white farmer because of his race.
Apparently, somebody intending to cause mischief whittled down the tape from a 43-minute-long video which kept Sherrod’s comments in proper context to a brief clip of this one statement. The edited video ended up first on conservative http://www.breitbart.com/, and then on http://www.foxnews.com/, purportedly as an accurate portrayal of Sherrod’s racist mentality.
However, if you watch the entire 43-minute speech of Sherrod’s, you quickly understand that not only has Sherrod’s story been taken woefully out of context, but Sherrod takes considerable time to explain to her audience her viewpoint that the struggles of rural farmers isn’t about race but about class.
Sure, she pits “us” against “them” and employs a black/white dichotomy in her terminology, but how many white people do the same thing and never get accused of racism? It's not pretty, and it's not ideal, but considering where our country is along the racial harmony continuum, Sherrod's language is hardly incriminating.
Actually, one might find her opinion on class struggles more provocative. Sherrod uses her farmer story to depict her conviction that poor blacks and poor whites need to share their struggle against the richer ruling class. Some conservatives might protest a US government official espousing basic Communist theory, but her analysis of the growing economic inequities in our country isn’t completely without merit, is it?
And yes, she says that back in the late 1980’s, she intentionally only wanted to provide the minimal amount of help to the farmer in question, because he was white. Let him go to his own kind for help, she reasoned. But after she saw that the white lawyer hired by the farmer wasn’t doing anything to help, and with a deadline looming for the farmer to save his livelihood, Sherrod credits God with helping her to see that she needed to go the extra mile for this family despite their – and her – race. So she did, and even the farmer and his wife, who are still alive and remember her with grateful fondness, have come to her defense.
Nobody Checked the Facts
Meanwhile, as the tainted video made its rounds on the Internet, the USDA’s agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, took what he saw at face value and summarily fired Sherrod. Well, actually, he insisted she resign. The White House, eager to suppress the story for fear of a racial backlash, supported Vilsack. The NAACP, desperate to staunch yet another PR fiasco after its botched assertion that the Tea Party is racist, also quickly castigated Sherrod for her remarks.
At this point on Wednesday afternoon, things have begun to look much better for Sherrod. The White House has backed off of its hard line, the NAACP has apologized to Sherrod and posted a copy of the full speech on its website, and Sherrod has received an apology - and the offer of another job - from the USDA.
Now, it’s obvious from the videotape that Sherrod is not a poster child for racial harmony. Most of us aren’t. But you have to give credit where credit is due: Sherrod admonishes her audience multiple times about their responsibilities in getting along with people from other races. Her story about the farmer was intended to showcase her changing attitudes about whites and how despite suffering some horrendous experiences as a young adult because of white racists, she should hold no grudges.
As a speech, Sherrod’s presentation held a mix of poignancy, history, maturing morality, and motherly advice, along with some political rhetoric one might expect from any liberal Democrat. But overall, the video shows an unremarkable address by a government bureaucrat in a small town in the middle of nowhere.
Indeed, the video languished in obscurity until conservative blowhard Andrew Breitbart posted it on his website. Breitbart tells CNN that a source he’s keeping anonymous advised him in March of the existence of a blatantly racist speech at a NAACP banquet. However, the video Breitbart obtained was only the short segment of the farmer story taken out of context. Obviously, Breitbard considered this video explosive, and apparently he never bothered to check its authenticity.
Instead, Breitbart claims to have initially taken the high road and withheld the video from public viewing because he didn’t think it necessarily fit any narrative taking place in the United States during this time. However, he found his moment as a controversy between the NAACP and the grassroots Tea Party organization flamed out.
Last week, the NAACP accused Tea Party activists of being racist, an assertion from which even some prominent blacks distanced themselves. Tea Partiers tried to fan the publicity flames of this claim, but the media quickly lost interest. So Breitbart took his cue and posted the video clip featuring Sherrod’s farmer story. And he got the attention he was seeking.
Where's the Accountability?
Is this what politics has come to in the United States? Has the Internet enabled both left-wing and right-wing zealots to parody reality and foment the national conversation into a froth based solely on unsubstantiated, exaggerated, and irresponsible sensationalism?
Breitbart claims that his motivation was not to harm Sherrod but to spotlight rampant racism within the NAACP. When challenged about his lack of due diligence, his reluctance to post the full video, his refusal to apologize to Sherrod, and his suggestion that Sherrod and the media have made up the whole thing, Breitbart inexplicably contends that “it’s not about Sherrod.”
Well, he's right about that. It's not about Sherrod any more; it's about him.
Who's the Bigger Bigot?
For Breitbart to be the consummate American patriot he claims to be, when word of the incriminating video reached his ears, he should have asked a lot of questions. Had the video been legit, it indeed could have lit a tinderbox full of racial tensions.
He should have tracked down the people that recorded it and appeared in it. Any webmaster with any integrity doesn’t just slap videos of this nature online. In addition, the NAACP and the USDA should have vetted the video themselves before publicly overreacting as they did. And the White House should have kept mum and professional until the veracity of all that had transpired was corroborated.
But of all the mistakes made in this episode, the ultimate blame falls on Breitbart. His appalling disregard for Sherrod's civil rights, his woefully unprofessional conduct as a media operative, and his amazing refusal to apologize paint him as a caricature of conservative truculence.
Very few white Americans hold up the NAACP as a model organization of racial tolerance. But if Breitbart was looking for some smoking gun in the video he perpetrated onto the Internet, all he did was shoot buckshot through his balloon of an inflated, spiteful ego. Through his calloused disregard for truth, honesty, integrity, and validity, he sucker-punched a woman who’s more of a Yankee Democrat than a black bigot. And then he challenges CNN to prove the farmer who claims to have been assisted by Sherrod isn’t a fake.
According to his biography* on the Internet, Breitbart fancies himself as a leader of the Tea Party movement.
I’m glad I drink coffee.
*This is a Wikipedia entry, which again, I don't necessarily endorse.