Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Real Shirley Sherrod Scandal

No matter how much we like to think that we live in a post-racial world, where black and white doesn't matter and everyone has the same opportunities, that's just not true.  And there is perhaps no better example of that than the Shirley Sherrod controversy that has been raging for the past few days.

At an NAACP dinner a few months ago, Sherrod told a story about her time working in an advocacy agency helping black Southern farmers keep their land back in the eighties. The first time a white farmer came to her for help, she struggled with what to do since her father had been killed by a Klansman: "He took a long time talking but he was trying to show me he was superior to me. I know what he was doing. But he had come to me for help. What he didn't know, while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him. I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland." She goes on to relate how the experience was a revelation to her, how it helped her move beyond race and focus instead on helping the impoverished: "I didn't discriminate ... If I had discriminated against him, I would not have given him any help at all because I wasn't obligated to do it by anyone ... I didn't have to help that farmer. I could have sent him out the door without giving him any help at all. But in the end, we became very good friends, and that friendship lasted for some years. [...] Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who haven't. They could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to help poor people - those who don't have access the way others have."

And then someone over at Fox News took pruning shears (or, really, more of a hatchet) to the video of her speech, painting her as a racist who was using her government job to oppress the poor white people.  Now, there's a couple things wrong with this representation.  First, Sherrod wasn't working with the government when the incident happened (she only took up her post last year).  Second, CNN decided to do some real investigative journalism into the matter and was interviewing the alleged victims of Sherrod's racism, who said that not only had Sherrod been more than helpful, she saved their farm. (Incidentally, they also had on Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger who released the chopped video, and he said he doubted the identity of the farmer's wife during the interviews).

But that didn't seem to matter to the USDA, which promptly kicked her out (with prompting from the White House), claiming a 'zero-tolerance' policy on racism.  Do they also have a zero-tolerance policy on suspensions, investigations, and disciplinary boards?  The Obama White House has faced criticism for being too slow to react to the oil spill, the economy, and countless other things.  But oh man, did they ever pick the wrong issue to act quickly on.

The real Shirley Sherrod scandal is not what she said or did twenty years ago.  The real scandal is twofold.  One: The lying and misrepresentation going on at Fox News, and the lack of censure faced by Andrew Breitbart (as Rachel Maddow so wonderfully put it, "Omission Accomplished"). There is a reason that the slogan for journalists says: "Get it first. But first, get it right". And two: That the White House, which just a few months ago was decrying Fox as entertainment and not news, would help fire a USDA staffer when Fox is the only network reporting on a (non)incident from so long ago.

Update: Now that the uncut video has come out, the administration and the USDA have both issued apologies to Sherrod, as well as offering her a new job. She has not made a decision on whether or not to accept it.


  1. Wow! I'm so glad I'm subscribed, or else I wouldn't know what is going on half the time.

  2. Thanks for following! I'm sorry we've been a bit lax over the summer...we're trying to get back into things now.