Walk on eggshells, get egg on your face

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Un­til this week, Shirley Sher­rod was an ob­scure U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture of­fi­cial. She is ob­scure no more be­cause of a ma­li­ciously edited video that twisted, dis­torted and maimed be­yond recog­ni­tion a story she was telling about racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. She was fired on the strength of that now dis­cred­ited video. An em­bar­rassed Tom Vil­sack, the sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture, of­fered her an­other job, and the pres­i­dent him­self called to try to make things right.

You prob­a­bly know all that and no doubt have formed an opin­ion on it. Sher­rod has be­come an icon or maybe a cau­tion­ary tale or a sore point in the coun­try’s on­go­ing strug­gle in con­fronting its racial is­sues.

We’ve shown no tal­ent or depth for the dis­cus­sion be­cause we’ve yet to be hon­est about it. Racial dis­cus­sions of­ten tend to veer off into par­ties air­ing their griev­ances, real or per­ceived.

The heav­ily edited video stoked the no­tion that African Amer­i­cans in po­si­tions of power are wait­ing to pounce venge­fully on in­no­cent and un­de­serv­ing whites.

In the video, Sher­rod is shown telling an ap­prov­ing au­di­ence at a gath­er­ing of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple about a white farmer who sought her as­sis­tance. “I was strug­gling with the fact that so many black peo­ple have lost their farm­land, and here I was faced with hav­ing to help a white per­son save their land — so I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough,” Sher­rod said. Cut. Here’s what was left out: 1) The in­ci­dent hap­pened long be­fore Sher­rod took a job with the fed­eral govern­ment, and 2) she helped that farmer avoid bank­ruptcy. He kept his farm and was so grate­ful that his was one of the first voices to ask for her re- Vil­i­fied af­ter edited sound bite por­trayed her as racist. in­state­ment.

Sher­rod’s full re­marks told of how she over­came those feel­ings and com­mit­ted to help the white farmer save his land.

It was a good story aimed at an au­di­ence of African Amer­i­can youths who might have ben­e­fited from the wis­dom of Sher­rod’s re­marks but for the furor. What they ul­ti­mately learned is that speak­ing can­didly about racial mat­ters will hurt you.

Once the video clip hit Fox News, ev­ery­body jumped. Thump­ing their chests over the Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment’s zero-tol­er­ance pol­icy on dis­crim­i­na­tion, agency of­fi­cials ex­tracted Sher­rod’s res­ig­na­tion. Even the NAACP con­demned her — all on the ba­sis of out-of-con­text, in­com­plete re­marks that played right into the dark­est racial in­se­cu­ri­ties.

Now, of course, there is ma­jor re­scram­bling. Vil­sack and the ad­min­is­tra­tion are scram­bling to wipe the egg off their col­lec­tive face. Fox News per­son­al­ity Bill O’Reilly apol­o­gized — sort of — for air­ing the piece. An­drew Bre­it­bart, the blog­ger who sup- plied the clip, is ped­dling a line that he was es­sen­tially right.

No, he wasn’t. And nei­ther were Vil­sack, the White House, the NAACP, O’Reilly or Fox News.

They all sound like the fel­low who wakes up with a hor­ri­ble han­gover and pledges “Never again” — un­til happy hour rolls around.

They smeared a good woman’s name. And why? Be­cause she told the truth.

We could learn from this, but the coun­try’s his­tory on con­fronting and ex­or­cis­ing its racist demons doesn’t in­spire much con­fi­dence.

This episode speaks vol­umes about how govern­ment and the me­dia are such suck­ers for cries of re­verse dis­crim­i­na­tion that they rush to the sound of pop guns.

But it speaks even louder to how far our so­ci­ety — one that has come a long way from its seg­re­ga­tion­ist past — has yet to go be­fore we deal with each other as peo­ple and not stereo­typ­i­cal prod­ucts of our racial in­se­cu­ri­ties.

shirley sher­rod

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