Walk on eggshells, get egg on your face
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.