A Race to the Bottom – July 27, 2010

OK, there isn’t much to say about the Shirley Sherrod case that hasn’t already been said.  But I’ll spill some thoughts anyway.

First of all, there are altogether too few heroes in this story.  Andrew Breitbart, who originally put the video on line, deliberately left it intimating that Sherrod had been proclaiming – matter-of-factly, with no apologies – that she had treated some white supplicants in a racist fashion.  In fact, she had been telling a story of redemption – how she came to realize that folks needing help are folks needing help, regardless of the color.  To take a few minutes of a speech out of context, and carve it up so that it says the opposite of what was actually said, is disgraceful, dishonest, and dishonorable.
Now, Breitbart, in his defense, says that to him the important part was not what Sherrod said, but what everyone else in the room said – they were affirming, “ah-hah”-ing, and laughing as she described sending the white farmer to one “of his own kind.”  Just for a moment imagine if someone addressing a white audience said something similar and got a similar reaction.  Regardless of the upshot of the story, this was not, shall we say, a color-blind crowd.  They were all on board.
Also disgracing themselves was the NAACP.  Its President, Benjamin Jealous, was quick to throw Sherrod under the bus.  He later claimed disculpation, saying he had been “snookered” by Breitbart and the right-wing media, that he had to come out with a statement immediately upon hearing of the incident, that it was after midnight and there hadn’t been time to thoroughly investigate the incident, etc, etc.  He was a victim!
Hogwash.  He made a knee-jerk reaction to something that he should have had the presence of mind to evaluate carefully.  Breitbart is no Walter Cronkite.  He is best known for publicizing the two young ambush reporters who busted ACORN in the act of (repeatedly) abetting child prostitution (Entrapment! cried the Acornistas.  We would not have broken the law if they hadn’t given us the opportunity!).   So to take this bit of tape at face value speaks of one of two things – fear of being caught in a blog, or insecurity about the integrity of the NAACP and its positions.  After all, the organization had most recently made news for itself by pushing – yet again, and yet again with no substantiation – the charge that the Tea Party group is a bunch of racists, pointing to the claim that someone had shouted the “N-word” (Lord, I hate that expression!) at the rally way back in March the day before the health care legislation passed.  So if a black woman appears to make racist comments at a NAACP function, well, the risk of being caught in a double-standard outweighs the cost of injustice for the individual involved.  Certainly in this instance – and in many others, I would argue – the cautious dignity of a “I haven’t seen all the facts, and will not comment until I do” response would have been distinguished by its uniqueness.
Speaking of snap judgments, let’s get to the real incompetence in this.  What kind of management fires someone for this kind of indiscretion – even if true – without letting the individual respond to the charges?  Imagine the ripple effects across the organization, once it becomes clear that management will not defend its own staff in the face of unproven charges, but will panic and push them overboard?  They may have patted themselves on the back for “getting out in front of the story,” but they were so far out in front they fell off its rails.  This tape had not even been mentioned at this point except in a handful of political-junkie blogs.  Fox News, so quickly fingered as a culprit in this and similar controversies, did not even mention the name Shirley Sherrod until after she had lost her job.  And yet, as Sherrod herself describes it, she was ordered during a cell phone conversation to pull over at the side of the road in the middle of a four-hour trip and submit her resignation.  Because – horrors! – she was sure to be on Glenn Beck that night.  (As it happens, Beck did pick it up – to defend Sherrod against the shabby treatment she received.)  Again, wouldn’t a confident management have listened, realized how strong the opposite story was, and vowed to put her on the airwaves to counter the “Beck mob”?
And of course, the White House had to be involved in this.  I can’t imagine summary execution of even a mid-level staffer like this being done solely by Tom Vilsack, the Agriculture Secretary.  They all shared a meal of crow when they walked back the firing and tried to get her to come back on side.  The President called to apologize.  I bet that made everything hunky-dory.
But Shirley Sherrod is a flawed angel.  Despite the story of redemption that her speech – in its entirety – conveys, she is also given to some pretty quick and broad-brush condemnations.  She adds to the chorus of non-thinkers who proclaim that Fox News is racist.  She sees racism at the Agriculture Department.  She has uncomfortably Marxist views about the roles of people in their society.  I would not raise her up as a martyr in marble.
I think the only people in this who emerge with nobility are the Spooners – the white farmers she originally dissed, and then helped way back in 1986.  They saw what had happened to her, and came forward to see that the true story was told.  Congratulations.  They rose up against the high crashing wave of accepted wisdom and turned it aside with the facts.  The world needs more people like the Spooners.  More importantly, the world needs more people who know to look for the Spooners in any given story.
Because for me the main issue here is that people – on both sides of the argument – have scripts about the state of racism in this country.  Either conservatives are racists, or liberals are hypocrites because their reverse racism is nonetheless racism.  And any snippet – or even the suggestion of a hint of a snippet – of new data from the World Out There that they can hang on their tree to bolster their case adds to the festoonment.  And if the truth of the matter does not support the script, well, we’ll just use the bits that do.
This is a feature of what passes for political discussion in this country today, and both left and right are drenched in culpability.  But in few areas of discourse is this more prevalent than in the issue of racism.  It seems to me that racism is one of those charges that doesn’t seem to need substantiation.  All you have to do is say someone is racist and they are forced to prove a negative.  For example, I have watched Fox News for years.  I enjoy their approach to the news, I enjoy many of the opinion shows they have – virtually all of which, by the way, feature competing views from both left and right, although admittedly the voices of the right outnumber the others most of the time.  In all that time, I have never seen or heard anything whatsoever that would remotely qualify as racist.  To the contrary, I think their discussions of the race issue are dignified and searching.
And yet, just last Sunday, Howard Dean – as a talking head guest on Fox News itself – flat out called the network racist for allegedly contributing to the Sherrod scandal.  Apart from being ignorant of the facts, Dean’s comment is remarkable because he immediately passed the lesser charge of sloppy or bad journalism and went straight to the knife-at-the-jugular charge of racism.  He offered no further justification for the charge, but he wouldn’t back away from it either.
Then there is the unedifying story of the Journolist.  If you haven’t heard of this, it is – was, since it has been taken off the Web – an invitation-only site where journalists, bloggers, and journalism professors of the liberal persuasion could gather and share thoughts and ideas.   The Daily Caller.com website (definitely not a liberal site) got hold of some of the postings and made them public, which is why some journalists lost their jobs and the site has come down.  It’s one thing to share ideas and comments.  It’s quite another when those ideas morph into talking points that are designed to help a particular party or candidate (bet you can guess who they all wanted to be President).   A journalist should at least have the integrity to offer his own thoughts rather than spout the consensus notions of his or her colleagues and in the process become a political operative.
Anyway, back when Obama’s connection to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright was controversial, one of the responses that was seriously suggested and debated among the Journolistas was to distract critics’ attention by taking “anyone – Fred Barnes or Karl Rove – and call them a racist.”  The idea being that defense against such a formless charge is so impossible that it would consume the story hour and save Obama and Wright from scrutiny.
Didn’t have to have a shred of truth.
I had hoped President Obama would have contributed more to putting this issue to rest.  He is uniquely positioned to do so, for obvious reasons.  But he doesn’t seem to have it in his makeup.  Even his famous Philadephia speech on race failed to rise above.  Using the example of his own grandmother, he seemed to be saying, we’re all a little bit racist.  But doesn’t that make racism the norm instead of something we should rise above?
Too often, Obama’s reactions in circumstances that impinge on the race question manage to inflame rather than elevate.  Remember the incident with Obama’s Cambridge pal, Henry Louis Gates, and the cop who arrested him?  Obama’s reaction – even while he was saying he didn’t have the facts – was the the Cambridge police had acted “stupidly.”  Well, there’s a phrase that’ll help settle the emotions.
And of course, the Administration’s reaction to the Arizona immigration law is couched in racial notions.  Despite the fact that the law is carefully written to prevent racial profiling, the White House immediately condemned it in those very terms.  Even before the condemning officials had actually read it.
This country has come miles and miles in the last fifty years on the subject of race.  As recently as when Obama was a child, there were parts of the country where his white mother and his black father could not sit in the same part of a bus.  Why don’t we spend more time celebrating that?  We have elected a black man to the highest office in the country, and there were no riots.  There was probably more controversy about JFK being Catholic than there was about Obama being black.  There were no notable protests at the inauguration.  And despite the efforts of the liberal bloggers and the NAACP to prove otherwise, the current controversies about this president are about his policies rather than his color.
Why, then, do so many people have a chip on their shoulder about race?  It is an issue we cannot discuss openly.  For instance, it cannot be a coincidence that virtually all the world class sprinters of the last fifty years have been black, and all the world class swimmers of the last fifty years have been white.  There are race differences – but no one can talk about them because we are all so twitchy about being labeled racist.
We have clearly not reached Obama’s promised post-racial nirvana.  There are doubtless parts of our society where people face discrimination, either overt or more subtle.  But the poisoned atmosphere created by those who cry “racist” at every imagined slight – and those who equally quickly point out reverse racism – is keeping us from rapprochement.  This is clearly a place where this President could lead, and I think if the effort was genuine many people from both sides of the aisle would come along.
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