Don’t fall for re­verse racism ploy

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Af­ter the Shirley Sher­rod episode, there’s no longer any need to mince words: A cyn­i­cal right-wing pro­pa­ganda ma­chine is ped­dling the poi­sonous fic­tion that when African Amer­i­cans or other mi­nori­ties reach po­si­tions of power, they seek some kind of re­venge against whites.

A few of the pur­vey­ors of this big­oted non­sense might ac­tu­ally be­lieve it. Most of them, how­ever, are merely seek­ing po­lit­i­cal gain by invit­ing white vot­ers to ques­tion the mo­tives and good faith of the nation’s first African Amer­i­can pres­i­dent. This is re­ally about tear­ing Barack Obama down.

Sher­rod, un­til Mon­day an of­fi­cial with the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, was sup­posed to be mere col­lat­eral dam­age. An­drew Bre­it­bart, a smarmy provo­ca­teur who of­ten speaks at tea party ral­lies, posted on his web­site a video snip­pet of a speech that Sher­rod, who is African Amer­i­can, gave to a NAACP meet­ing. In it, Sher­rod seemed to boast of hav­ing with­held from a white farmer some mea­sure of aid that she would have given to a black farmer.

It looked like a clear case of black racism in ac­tion. Within hours, Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Tom Vil­sack had forced her to re­sign. The NAACP, un­der at­tack from the right for hav­ing de­nounced racism in the tea party move­ment, is­sued a state­ment blast­ing Sher­rod and con­demn­ing her at­ti­tude as un­ac­cept­able.

But Bre­it­bart had over­stepped. The full video of Sher­rod’s speech showed she wasn’t brag­ging about be­ing a racist, she was telling what amounted to a para­ble about prej­u­dice and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. For one thing, the in­ci­dent hap­pened in 1986 when she was work­ing for a non­profit, long be­fore she joined the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. For an­other, she helped that white man and his fam­ily save their farm, and they be­came friends. Through him, she said, she learned to look past race to­ward our com­mon hu­man­ity.

In ef­fect, she was telling the story of Amer­ica’s strug­gle with race, but with the roles re­versed. For hun­dreds of years, black peo­ple were en­slaved, op­pressed and dis­crim­i­nated against by whites — un­til the civil rights move­ment gave us all a path to­ward re­demp­tion.

With the Obama pres­i­dency, though, has come a flurry of charges — from the likes of Bre­it­bart but also from more sub­stan­tial con­ser­va­tive fig­ures — about al­leged in­ci­dences of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion against whites by blacks and other mi­nori­ties. Re­call, for ex­am­ple, the way Obama’s crit­ics had a fit when he of­fered an opin­ion about the con­fronta­tion be­tween Har­vard pro­fes­sor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a white po­lice of­fi­cer. Re­mem­ber the over-the-top re­ac­tion when it was learned that Jus­tice So­nia So­tomayor had once talked about how be­ing a “wise Latina” might af­fect her think­ing.

Newt Gin­grich called So­tomayor a racist. He was light­ning-quick to call Sher­rod a racist, too. I’d sug­gest that the for­mer House speaker con­sider switch­ing to de­caf, but I think he knows ex­actly what he’s do­ing.

These al­le­ga­tions of anti-white racism are be­ing de­lib­er­ately hyped and ex­ag­ger­ated be­cause they are de­signed to make whites fear­ful. It won’t work with most peo­ple, of course, but it works with some — enough, per­haps, to help erode Obama’s po­lit­i­cal stand­ing and dam­age his party’s prospects at the polls.

Be­fore Sher­rod, the cause cele­bre of the “You Must Fear Obama” cam­paign in­volved some­thing called the New Black Pan­ther Party. Never heard of it? That’s be­cause it’s a tiny group that ex­ists mainly in the fevered imag­i­na­tions of its few mem­bers.

The Sher­rod case ex­posed the right-wing cam­paign to use racial fear to de­stroy Obama’s pres­i­dency, and I hope the ef­fect is to fi­nally stiffen some spines in the ad­min­is­tra­tion. The way to deal with bul­lies is to con­front them. Yet Sher­rod was fired be­fore even be­ing al­lowed to tell her side of the story. She said the of­fi­cial who car­ried out the ex­e­cu­tion ex­plained that she had to re­sign im­me­di­ately be­cause the story was go­ing to be on Glenn Beck’s show that night. Iron­i­cally, Beck was the only Fox host who, upon hear­ing the rest of Sher­rod’s speech, promptly called for her to be re­in­stated. On Wed­nes­day, Vil­sack of­fered to re­hire her.

Shirley Sher­rod stuck to her prin­ci­ples and stood her ground. I hope the White House learns a les­son. Shirley Sher­rod was fired af­ter she said in a speech that she had failed to give Roger Spooner, now 88, shown with wife Eloise, her full sup­port when he faced the loss of his fam­ily farm in the 1980s, long be­fore her stint at the USDA. But the Spoon­ers say they be­came life­long friends and credit Sher­rod with help­ing to save the farm. Fatahma Odebe, above right, joins a rally Wed­nes­day out­side of the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture build­ing in Washington to de­mand that Sher­rod be re­in­stated.

Shirley Sher­rod

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