UPDATE: A little before 5 pm EST, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized to Sherrod and offered her an alternative job. While Vilsack says he will be disturbed by his actions for some time, I’m sure it pales in comparison to how Sherrod feels now and will likely continue to feel if she in fact returns to work at the USDA in the new position, because she still can’t have her old one back. THE WHITEHOUSE ALSO APOLOGIZED, late this afternoon after the writing of this post, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs apologized to Sherrod on “behalf of the entire White House” and seemingly admitted that the firing was made based on calls to the WH immediately following the airing of the heavily doctored video by Fox News.
Shirley Sherrod holds her Family Farm Champion Award from farmers in GA
On Monday, Shirley Sherrod lost her job. An outspoken advocate for the rural poor farmers, Shirley Sherrod is credited for having saved many rural people’s farms. As seen above, she has won awards for her hard work on behalf of farmers.
Sherrod is also a woman who is secure enough in her beliefs about economic, racial, and social equality that she readily talks about her own racial awakening in mixed company. Her story has been a cornerstone of speeches about equality, service, and struggle that she has given around the country. In March of this year, she told it to the NAACP at a filmed dinner. It begins with her talking about how a struggling white farmer, worried about losing everything, still hung on to his racial superiority when faced with having to ask a black woman for help. Sherrod admits that in the face of his racial acting out, she considered using her position as GA’s head of the USDA Rural Development Office to deny him assistance for which he qualified. But unlike the myriad of documented cases of white USDA workers doing exactly that to black farmers throughout its history, Sherrod chose to see the humanity of the farmer and to do her job. The result was that the family kept their farm and both they and Sherrod learned a valuable lesson about looking past race and racial history toward the struggle for equality and survival that we are all engaged in.
Not only does the promise of shared struggle and commitment inspire but Sherrod’s story is the kind that plays well to both racist and non-racist audiences. For racists and racism deniers, Sherrod’s example is proof that “really we are all racist.” In this version, racism is not a systemic inequality running through the heart of our country (the United States) that ultimately infects all communities precisely because of the way the master’s tools are both utilized by oppressors and internalized by many of the oppressed but rather individual acts in a vaccuum in which 9 times out of ten black people are the problem because they won’t “let it go.” Since Sherrod did in fact “let it go” it further proves reifies in the racist mind that when “black people stop being racist, racism will stop existing.” It’s a cognitive nightmare version of what she said but never the less would make her story resonate in positive ways with people prone to racialized thinking who do not think themselves racist.
In a less cynical light, Sherrod’s story represents a stark reminder that when white people resort to racial tension in the face of their own anxieties about marginalization (in this case potentially losing their farm because of very real classism embedded in how we treat small farmers and rural people) black people do not often respond in kind. For people who understand how racism works in this country, her experience provides a counterpoint to the feared Fanonian moment in which oppressor and oppressed simply trade places. More than that, it shows us that by looking at each others humanity rather than the things that divide us we can actually end racism and racial tension in this country.
Whether you view her story through a racist lens or an anti-racist one, Sherrod ultimately reminds us of several things:
- by engaging one another as equals, embracing our shared humanity, and investing in our shared success we can end racism and discrimination
- that the investment in white supremacy in this nation is so ingrained that even when white people are the targets of classism, regionalism, or even homophobia, many will still fall back on whiteness to feel better rather than address the real oppressors
- unlike the stereotype and growing fear of “reverse discrimination” most black people confronted with white racism will still do their jobs correctly and fairly
- riding out fear and anger, regardless of your position (poor farmer/USDA rep), can ultimately lead to racial reconciliation on all sides and away from more oppression
So how does such a positive message get twisted to the point that Sherrod is monitoring her own hurt-propelled anger on national news as she talks about being called repeatedly on the road and then finally, cruelly, dismissed from her job mid-route? As she put it on MSNBC last night, “Shirley, they want you to pull over … They want you to resign.”
Shal Farley/ 2009
Andrew Breitbart, a commentator for The Washington Times, former editor of the Drudge Report, former researcher for HuffPo, and current blogger/journalist for his own website breitbart.com, aired a heavily edited version of Sherrod’s speech on Monday on his blog biggovernment.com under the title “Proof the NAACP Awards Racism.” The video of her speech jumped from her childhood commitment to serve rural black people in GA, a group traditionally exploited, harassed, and even physically threatened to this day, to her story of the white farmer whose racialization of their encounter changed her world. The edit of the video removed Sherrod’s discussion of how she actually did not discriminate against the farmers in the story or how her interaction with them ensured that she would not discriminate against anyone else. It also intentionally left out her philosophy about the humanity and equality of all people and how it is the government’s job to represent and help all people. Finally, it erased the real discrimination that went on in this story between rich young white male lawyers and a poor, white, elderly rural, family and how the former’s discrimination shed all to necessary light on why we need to stick together across racial lines if we are ever going to have real equality in this nation. In other words, Breitbart took a speech about equality and humanity and transformed it into “reverse discrimination.”
Fox news, then allowed the story to be posted on their website without doing any fact checking and reported on it on their network. Fox employees, like Rush Limbaugh also lambasted Sherrod and the White House without fact checking. The soundbite was simply “proof ‘reverse racism’ is the norm under Obama.” Neo-Conservative Pundits, talk show hosts, and tea party spokespeople finally had their whipping boy girl.
Instead of countering with reasoned and documented information, or even following basic legal procedures governing the hiring and firing of Federal employees, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack demanded Sherrod’s resignation. His racial indignation was so great that he harassed her with 3 separate phone calls while she was driving home from work, finally having his office request that she pull over to the side of the road so he could fire her then and there. Apparently, when a black woman says in public that a lifetime of racism against her momentarily colored the way she viewed white people, she does not have the institutional protection of facts or laws nor the humanity in the eyes of her employer to at least warrant allowing her to reach her destination before losing her job. Instead, the side of the road will do.
If you are a person of color in N. America, you have either lost a promotion, job, grant, publication, etc. or know someone who has on the basis of rumor and innuendo about your “anger” or “ability to play ball.” In academe we use the word “fit” and “fit” is used to deny outspoken people of color tenure, advancement, or even hire. The fear beneath the “fit” is often about the fact that these people of color make white colleagues uncomfortable because they talk “too much” about the realities of race, racism, and the meaning of equality. Often, if the school is as entrenched as mine, the discussion will sooner or later turn to “reverse discrimination”, ie the fear that white people will feel by black people in positions of power. In the case of academe that translates to white paranoia about exclusionary pedagogy and curriculum that amounts to little more than professors of color calling on everyone in the room equally and producing a syllabus that does not tokenize authors of color. Bad evals, much like doctored videotapes of speeches, are used devoid of context to “prove” that “reverse discrimination”, often called “bad teaching” or “lack of collegiality”, has occurred. It is a story so old, I am sure the first black people freed from slavery can tell it as easily as those of us living today. (image above: Kimberly White/Reuters)
So what makes Sherrod’s case so important?
In the wake of the NAACP posting Sherrod’s entire speech online and the white farmers in the story coming forward and saying how much help they received from Sherrod, the White House is refusing to reinstate her.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, continued to assassinate her character nationally late Tuesday night even though he now admits she was not guilty of supporting discrimination in her speech nor is there any evidence that she discriminated against anyone she worked with in her position. He went on record saying:
First, for the past 18 months, we have been working to turn the page on the sordid civil rights record at USDA and this controversy could make it more difficult to move forward on correcting injustices. … Our policy is clear. There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA and we strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person. We have a duty to ensure that when we provide services to the American people we do so in an equitable manner. But equally important is our duty to instill confidence in the American people that we are fair service providers. (Politico.com)
Like his Republican counterparts, Vilsack seemed to be implying that black people are somehow responsible for the “sordid civil rights record at the USDA.” Never mind that this would be impossible given that USDA’s history of discrimination in the region is about black farmers losing their land because of faulty loans, lack of loans or aid, bad seed shoved off on them, discriminatoryu siezure of their land or harrassment and/or intimidation, or their please for help falling on def ears at the offices meant to help them. In other words, Vislak is implicating Sherrod in the very history of white racial discrimination that spurred her into the position she had in the first place. She has worked for farmers for 3 decades to help ensure equality for all rural farmers in Georgia.
Worse, Vislack clearly believed that white fears of “reverse discrimination” trump the realities of black people’s lives. In this case, that reality includes the fact that this entire story stemmed from poor white farmers resorting to racial superiority against a black USDA employee, in order to mediate their own class fears, and that instead of shutting them down, she helped them save their farm. It also includes the fact that they bonded over the experience of fighting against the people who actually discriminating against the farmers and that these farmers stood up for Sherrod when people called for her head on a platter. These facts are apparently irrelevant in the face of white supremacist paranoia of which Vislak bought in.
The President has also refused to stand up and bring the Change we were promised. Though the President said nothing about the incident involving a Federal employee, according to CNN the White House released a statement on Tuesday morning saying the President had been briefed on the Sherrod situation and supported the decision to accept her resignation. According to the same Politico post cited above, by Tuesday evening the White House was backing off from responsibility for the firing but still said nothing in Sherrod’s defense. This is the third time an African American public figure has experienced some form of discrimination or seeming discrimination in which the President has offered us minimization, beer summits, resignations, and/or silence. Like when he said “the policies to help unemployed people will help those men just like everyone else” in response to a black journalists questioning what he was going to do about the disproportionate number of black men targeted for unemployment and lack of rehire during the recession, it seems that the change the President has brought to this country with regards to the lives of targeted or struggling black people is race blind euphemisms in the mouth of a black man instead of a white one.
The idea that he needs to appear to be “everybody’s President” has quickly proven to be code word for being everybody’s President until dominant culture gets their undies in a wedge. Once that happens, then it’s every black man or woman for themselves. “Everybody’s President” means EVERYBODY.
The Democrats are not alone in crucifying Sherrod. Not only did Fox and Breitbart run with this story without doing even the most simplistic fact checking, but the conservative media has been milking it for all it is worth.
Brietbart went on Hannity and claimed the issue was not whether Sherrod was racist but that the NAACP is “racist.” In his mind, they attacked the Tea Party for being racist when they were not and he did not do anything worse than they did. Never mind that no one in the Tea Party was fired or even effected by the NAACP’s resolution to condemn racism in the Tea Party movement nor that many of their members have been caught saying racist things, circulating racist emails or messages on chat boards, or holding racist signs. (One might infer that Brietbart engineered the Sherrod incident to prove how easy video is manipulated these days with little regard for what would happened to the specific black woman he targeted; which I personally would call racist. Then again, I’m only inferring, maybe the unidentified and “unknown to him prior” white farmer he says called him and gave him the tapes really does exist and his only fault is failing to live up to the journalistic standards that he seemed to uphold in his jobs for multiple other journalism sites in the past …)
Rush Limbaugh, who retains his job after commissioning and playing “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show, calling the President racist, and feeding the racial tensions in this country through a series of racially tinged comments and tirades on his show, is also calling for Sherrod and the President’s head on a platter. On last night’s show, he argued that Sherrod was a symptom of a much larger issue ushered in by the election of President Obama: the era of “reverse discrimination” in which white people would now be denied health care benefits, farm aid, or anything else they had “earned through their hard work” because some black person was going to discriminate against them. Not only does he have no evidence for this supposition in general, the white farmers in question have said Sherrod helped them and the U.S. Government has said Sherrod’ record is clean of any accusations of discrimination.
Fox news also joined the picnic, pun intended, when Meg Kelly repeatedly stated Sherrod would be coming on to discuss the controversy throughout her show. Then at the last minute, announced that Sherrod was not coming, and then preceded to disparage the decision claiming that Fox had done the right thing trying to give her an opportunity to respond to accusations. Never mind that Fox news was the primary network responsible for spreading the rumors and employs most of the reporters engaged in Sherrod’s character assassination and the “reverse discrimination” fervor. (image left: http://www.cromwellburnsinhell.com)
Despite condemnation coming on both sides, the difference between Conservative Pundits and White House officials condemning Sherrod is huge. Conservatives see Sherrod as their poster child for finally proving that black people are the real racists in this country and that white people are “victims of a vast black conspiracy to destroy them.” Never mind the truth that according to the white farmers in question, and all records on the case, Sherrod’s helped them save their farm and Sherrod lost her job over doctored material proven to be complete lies. The White House on the other hand is supposed to be the shining example of what our nation is capable of, of its potential to overcome difference and strife and unite disparate people in the process of nation building, and under the leadership of President Barack Obama, it was supposed to be a new chapter in race relations. While I never expected President Obama to dawn a cape and save the universe, I leave that to Ms. Magazine and other misguided liberals who think one black man in a position of power means racism is over, I did expect him to take a reasoned and effective approach to the many issues impacting N. Americans, including those that take on racial, sexual, or gender dimensions. His inability to do this even amongst his own employees and especially in the context of racialized cries of “reverse discrimination” that make this country even less safe for black people and even less likely to employ and retain black people in middle class positions, cannot help but make me question “Brotha, can you spare some change?”
Please consider signing the Color of Change Petition to save Sherrod’s job and let the President know what you think of the decision to support blatant lies over an employee with a proven record of fairness. click here