Nobody involved in the Shirley Sherrod scandal emerged with reputation intact — except, of course, for Sherrod herself. But although key players Andrew Breitbart, Tom Vilsack or Benjamin Jealous all deserve a measure of scorn, we're even more distressed by a political culture that, despite the promise of a "post-racial" society after Barack Obama's election as president, has clearly made little progress in coming to terms with the issues that divide our multiracial nation.
The whole sorry spectacle was set in motion last week at the annual convention of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, which approved a resolution accusing the "tea party" movement of harboring racists. Breitbart, a conservative Internet entrepreneur who has built a career out of taking umbrage, responded Monday by posting a short, edited video on his BigGovernment.com website that he presented as evidence of racism in the NAACP. It showed Sherrod, an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, making a speech at an NAACP meeting in which she confessed to giving less than "the full force of what I could do" for a white farmer who came to her for help 24 years previously.
It then emerged that the remarks had been taken out of context. In the full speech, Sherrod had gone on to say that she later helped the farmer get back on his feet, and took the episode as a lesson that her real mission was to help poor people regardless of race. But by the time the full video was released, the damage had been done. Vilsack, the secretary of Agriculture, dismissed Sherrod without bothering to get the whole story. The NAACP also rushed to judgment and publicly repudiated her.
Vilsack and NAACP President Jealous subsequently apologized, and Vilsack offered Sherrod a higher-profile job at the USDA. Still unapologetic is the bilious Breitbart, and although it's tempting to lay the blame for this debacle mostly at his feet, that would be a waste of ink; Breitbart is a creature of the instantaneous Internet news cycle with no more accountability for the damage he does than the coyotes that knock over hillside trash bins in search of dinner. We're more disappointed in Vilsack and Jealous, whose political cowardice made them far too willing to sacrifice an innocent woman's career and reputation to the demands of conservative pundits.
More to the point, though, the incident recalls another racial kerfuffle, at the height of the 2008 presidential campaign. After Internet videos emerged showing anti-American sermons by Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama delivered what was perhaps the most moving and meaningful speech of his career. One passage in particular is so relevant in terms of current events that it bears repeating here:
"For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle — as we did in the O.J. [Simpson] trial — or in the wake of tragedy — as we did in the aftermath of Katrina — or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Rev. Wright's sermons on every channel, every day, and talk about them from now until the election…. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary [Clinton] supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies. We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change."
Two years later, nothing has changed. If anything, race-baiting has intensified since Obama's election. It starts with a conservative narrative, constantly repeated on right-wing radio and television, that says white people are being victimized now that a black man is in the Oval Office. But the blame doesn't lie solely with conservatives. Attacks by the NAACP on the tea party movement serve only to fuel white resentment. We have no doubt that there are racists in the tea party, but then there are racists in the Parent Teacher Assn., the Boy Scouts of America and, yes, the NAACP. To collectively tar one's opponents as "racists" is the lowest form of political attack.
We're not expecting the likes of Breitbart to learn from their mistakes. But we can hold out hope that the American people will. Sherrod in her NAACP speech was trying to heal racial breaches in the best way possible — by making her audience think about their prejudices and understand how empty racial distinctions are. That this message was twisted by those seeking to worsen racial divisions is the most tragic aspect of this affair.