This week’s controversy centered on Shirley Sherrod, an official with the USDA who was forced to resign today after a video surfaced of a speech she gave on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government website. In the speech, Sherrod talks about an incident that happened when she worked for an agricultural nonprofit and a white farmer came to her seeking help for bankruptcy. As she admits to the crowd, she was initially reluctant to help and didn’t do as much as she could have to aid the farmer. But she soon realized she was in the wrong, she said, and went on to help rescue the farm from bankruptcy as well as work with many other white farmers. Sherrod’s story may have been a little too revealing — people tend not to talk about prejudices, even former ones, in public — but it was fundamentally good-natured. As Sherrod herself explained:
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.
Andrew Brietbart deliberately cut the necessary context from Sherrod’s remarks, leading viewers to think that she discriminated against white farmers while working at the USDA. As such, the NAACP issued a press release condemning Sherrod for her remarks, and the USDA asked for her resignation, despite the fact that there was nothing actually there to the story. In a statement released to the press, Secretary Tom Vilsack stood by his decision to accept Sherrod’s resignation, saying that “the controversy surrounding her comments would create situations where her decisions, rightly or wrongly, would be called into question making it difficult for her to bring jobs to Georgia.”
The video was released as a counterattack against the NAACP’s resolution asking the Tea Party to purge the racist element within their movement, but in a larger sense this is really about the cost of frankly discussing racism so high that no reasonable person would ever attempt to do so. Sherrod’s story isn’t about anti-white racism; it’s a story about overcoming her own personal prejudice, the kind of prejudice we find understandable because of her story but that we should be willing to forgive in ourselves and each other, given that none of us is immune. This is the mechanism by which “color blindness” destroys all avenues for actually mitigating the lingering effects of racism and American apartheid. The point of this smear was not to “spark” discussion of race. The point was to end it.
For all the sound and fury, Breitbart’s video was nothing more than an alibi, an attempt to collectively exonerate the right from a charge of racism by turning it back on the NAACP. This is the precise origin of the oppositional culture developed by some conservatives in the aftermath of the 2008 election. It is broadly premised on convincing conservatives they face a similar kind of institutional racism black people have faced throughout history, while maintaining that the sole obstacle to black advancement is the same culture of grievance they’re so desperate to imitate. Glenn Beck saying today’s America is “like the 1950s except the races are reversed,” isn’t an observation; it’s a demand for absolution. This is the same selfish white guilt rightly mocked when possessed by liberals, curdled into a bitter stew of defensive anger and epic self-pity. Yet even Beck thinks Sherrod was wronged.
Overcoming her own racial animosity and helping the white farming family at the center of her story, Sherrod says in the speech, taught her an important lesson. “Like I told, G-d helped me to see that it’s not just about black people; it’s about poor people,” Sherrod says. “And I’ve come a long way. I knew that I couldn’t live with hate, you know.”
So many of us can’t live without it.