July 22 (Bloomberg) -- Like the White House and the NAACP, I was snookered.
When I saw the video footage of Shirley Sherrod, Georgia’s rural development director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I leapt to the conclusion that she’d committed a firing offense. For admitting she gave less aid to a farmer because he was white, off with Sherrod’s head!
I shouldn’t have been so credulous. Like many in the media, I now appreciate how sensitive I am to being labeled a liberal bigot if I don’t hurry to condemn cases of reverse racism: black people in positions of authority, like Sherrod, who seem less than color-blind in dispensing help.
As the Sherrod tape went viral, what ensued was a perfect storm of mistaken reactions far more significant than my own. Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, condemned Sherrod, who had made the remarks at an NAACP banquet in March. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack moved swiftly to remove this renegade federal employee caught red-handed discriminating.
For Sherrod, appointed to her federal post in 2009 by the Obama administration, the downfall was bewildering.
She described receiving increasingly agitated calls from Cheryl Cook, Agriculture’s undersecretary for rural development, as she was returning from a visit to a farm. A distracted driver if ever there was one, she couldn’t adequately refute accusations from the front seat of her car. According to Sherrod, Cook said there was no time to waste before Fox News host Glenn Beck would hammer away at her on his show that night. Sherrod pulled off the road and texted her resignation.
Return to Sanity
Yesterday, some sanity returned. Backed by the unexpurgated video of her speech, the full story emerged of Sherrod conscientiously confronting her preconceptions and looking past skin color 24 years ago to help the white farmer, who became a good friend. The Obama administration apologized to Sherrod, who said she was considering whether to accept her job back.
There are two big problems here, aside from the harm to a woman who seems the very model of a decent civil servant.
One is that a lie speeds around the world several times before the truth catches up. Government officials and the reporters who cover them can easily get caught up in the frenzy and conclude the only way to stop the madness is to do something, anything.
The other is how sensitive those who seek to redress racial injustice are to claims of reverse racism, perhaps more so with Barack Obama in the White House. Race is an issue that sets off a hair-trigger reaction: fire first, ask questions later.
In retrospect, it’s ludicrous that someone didn’t question the edited video footage sooner. The website that put it up is known for baiting liberals, particularly on race. It first made hay with the hidden-camera footage filmed by activists that seemed to show counselors at the community-organizing group Acorn trying to help a prostitute get around the law. The setup worked; Acorn no longer exists.
The Sherrod footage hit as the media covered charges and countercharges between the Tea Party and the NAACP.
The head of Tea Party Express, Mark Williams, had put out a satiric -- which certainly isn’t synonymous with funny -- letter in which NAACP’s Jealous thanks Abraham Lincoln for giving blacks “three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house” and wonders how, with lower taxes, “we colored people ever get a widescreen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn.”
Eye for an Eye
Williams was exiled by the Tea Party Federation, and in the 24/7 media swirl, the hunt was on for the eye-for-an-eye. With white racists facing the heat, no liberal wanted to defend a black racist, particularly one associated even tenuously with the Obama administration.
Vilsack said that in demanding Sherrod’s resignation, post-haste, he acted on his own, without pressure from the White House. That didn’t stop reporters from pelting White House spokesman Robert Gibbs with Sherrod questions at yesterday’s news briefing.
Gibbs, with good reason, found ample blame to go around. “Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this have all made determinations and judgments without a full set of facts,” he said.
Race is as tender a subject as we have, made more so by having a black president. The Sherrod case diverted attention from real racism by manipulating the administration into overreacting to a fabricated charge.
How easy it is to destabilize Obama’s hard-won, delicate post-racial posture. How easy it was, for 24 hours, to let someone like Williams off the hook and put the president on it.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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