Shirley Sherrod.


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.

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  • Paula

    Breitbart has obviously been involved in malfeasance w/ video footage before, so I’m finding it really hard to feel self-righteous about his behavior because, hey, hustlers gotta hustle.

    The most serious issues of incompetence and cowardice lie w/ Vilsack and the Obama Administration, of course. But anyone who expected better from people who continually get spooked by the right wing noise machine are also probably deluding themselves, so I find myself not being able to gin up too much righteous outrage at them.

    I do, however, find it an interesting pattern that these relatively cut-and-dried cases of perfidy in relationship to race issues get more play (judging by the sheer number of commenting, I guess) among the mainstream left intertoobz than, say, the discrimination aimed at black homeowners by lending companies or the difficulty of sorting out comprehensive immigration reform. I don’t even know that the Oscar Grant case generated this level of “How dare they!!” pontificating.

    I guess my problem is that it’s very easy to see why Breitbart gets away w/ this shit. He’s playing on the always-persistent, niggling idea that minorities are there to hustle a system that gives them an unearned advantage over whites. Because we’re a nation of either cowards, intellectually immature, or sadly undereducated, we never confront these underlying issues of bias. What I see people in the lefty blogosphere doing now is not so very different from what the NAACP, Vilsack, and Obama have done — which is to separate themselves from the “poison” as fast as possible with as much bluster and self-righteousness as possible. It’s Breitbart’S/NAACP/Obama’s fault!!

    It’s never OUR fault, of course. It’s never our responsibility to accept failings that come a result of social conditioning that may take centuries to erase. Just as Vilsack et al must have initially assumed that Sherrod was a “bad” person who had no connection to anything they were doing in the name of equality, we’re now assuming that Breitbart is some toad who is not really a part of us, that his power exists independent of our society’s willingness to support him.

    • Darth Paul

      “But anyone who expected better from people who continually get spooked by the right wing noise machine are also probably deluding themselves…”

      “Spooked”, huh? Pitiful word choice.

      I find it disturbing that any educated person would find it reasonable for federal officials to succumb so easily AND quickly to what amounts to loudmouthed bullying. You’re essentially suggesting that the Administration is too psychologically delicate to do its job, which smacks of intellectual chauvinism. Is it so deluded to expect professionalism from elected officials, like internal or independent investigation, before executing a kneejerk and ignorant reaction? Even the State dinner fiasco- a serious security breach- was handled with proper due process, yet the Sherrod “incident” got no such accord until after the fact. Very disturbing.

      • Paula

        In regards to watching a lot of Americans, of the right or left persuasion, dealing with race issues, I will concede to being an “intellectual chauvinist” if by that you mean that I think most of the punditry surrounding it in the mainstream is … less than the sum of its parts. [And that’s me being diplomatic.] That was kind of the point of my comment.

        No, I don’t expect federal officials to be better @ this than ordinary Americans. If anything, I expect them to be worse (which they were undoubtedly in this case).

        I think that you’re going to have to elucidate exactly how the Sherrod case and the State Dinner are comparable because I don’t really remember any race issues being prominent in the latter.

        Who are you trying to defend here, exactly, because then I might understand where the tenor of your response is coming from.

  • R.A.B.

    Paula, the last two paragraphs of your initial comment are some truth-and-a-half.

  • norris hall

    The story of Shirley Miller Sherrod is morphing from “anti white racist” to “human rights advocate”

    She grew up in the racially afflicted south.

    In 1965 her father, Hosie Miller, a black man and a deacon at Thankful Baptist Church, was shot to death by a white farmer in what ostensibly was a dispute over a few cows,

    The all-white grand jury didn’t bring charges against the shooter.

    That summer, when she and several other blacks went to the county courthouse to register to vote, the county sheriff blocked the door and even pushed her husband-to-be, Lester Sherrod, down the stairs, she said.

    She went on to earn her master’s degree in community development from Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

    Sherrod returned to rural Georgia to help minority farmers keep their land. Because of discriminatory lending practices, black farmers were losing their farms in the late 1960s and ’70s.
    Sherrod co-founded New Communities Inc., a black communal farm project in Lee County, Georgia, that was modeled on kibbutzim in Israel. Local white farmers viciously opposed the 6,000-acre operation, accusing participants of being communists and occasionally firing shots at their buildings, Sherrod said.

    When drought struck the South in the 1970s, the federal government promised to help New Communities through the Office of Economic Opportunity. But the money was routed through the state, led by segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox, and the local office of the Farmers Home Administration, whose white agent was in no hurry to write the checks, she said.

    It took three years for New Communities to get an “emergency” loan, she said. By then it was too late.

    With black-owned farms heading toward extinction, Sherrod and other activists sued the USDA. In a consent decree, the USDA agreed to compensate black farmers who were victims of discrimination between January 1, 1981, and December 31, 1999. It was the largest civil rights settlement in history, with nearly $1 billion being paid to more than 16,000 victims. Legislation passed in 2008 will allow nearly 70,000 more potential claimants to qualify.

    USDA hired Sherrod as its Georgia director of rural development in August 2009. She was the first black person in that position; of 129 USDA employees in Georgia, only 20 are black, she said.
    Despite her father’s killing and the injustices that followed, the racial hatredshe has fought all her life, and now her quick exit from the USDA, Sherrod refuses to become bitter.

    “I can’t hold a grudge. I can’t even stay mad for long,” she said. “I just try to work to make things different. If I stayed mad, if I tried to hate all the time, I wouldn’t be able to see clearly in order to do some of the things that I’ve been able to do.

    “Even with this, I’m not angry. I’m not angry. I’m out of a job today, but I’m not angry. I will survive. I have. I can’t dwell on that. I just feel there’s a need to go forward.”

    Even Conservatives has shown a great respect for this black woman who has spent her life fighting discrimination.

    And now the Secretary of Agriculture and the Administration is admitting that they should have taken the time to listen to her whole speech instead of just the doctored version posted on a conservative blog which seemed to show her saying she “held back” from helping a white farmer stay on his land.

    Even The white farmer and his wife who are at the center of this controversy praised Sherrod for helping them fight to keep their farm from foreclosure.

    Shirley Miller Sherrod can certainly hold her head up high

    She is an example of the best qualities that all of us should emulate in our racially divided country.

  • Christian

    Does anyone think the way Obama and/or his administration dealt with this issue is related to what Aaron McGruder said about the President earlier: the fact that he is not the descendant of slaves? If Obama grew up in a more “traditional” Black American setting i.e. a Black family, Black church, etc., do you think he would have reacted differently to the Shirley Sherrod incident?