It was surreal watching the whole debacle around Shirley Sherrod unfold. I was in my customary mode watching American Morning on CNN as the story was breaking. The anchor John Roberts quizzed Dr. James Peterson, a young African American scholar, after showing him saw the clip planted by the rightwing ideologue Andrew Breitbart. The clip seemed to suggest that in her capacity as an official of the US Department of Agriculture, Ms. Sherrod was guilty of racist conduct because she refused to provide the same level of assistance to a White farmer as she offered to Black farmers. It was a damning accusation. Professor Peterson tried to explain Ms. Sherrod’s alleged actions as an outgrowth of her experiences with racism, but based on his cursory review of the Breitbart clip, he felt compelled to condemn her behavior as “institutional racism.”
My first reaction was -- I know the Sherrod name; I know of the legendary Charles Sherrod who has devoted his life to civil rights/human rights, including fighting for decades to save Black farm land and seeking justice for Black farmers systematically denied access to loans and grants from Agricultural Extension Agents of USDA. I know Charles Sherrod who was the Director of the Southwest Georgia Project and the New Communities Initiative that sought to create a sound and expansive economic base for Black farmers in the South. So my question was, is Shirley Charlie’s wife, sister, cousin? If there was a relationship or a connection, I knew something was fundamentally wrong with the picture painted by the clip streaming across the airways. Ms. Sherrod was pleading for someone, anyone from USDA, the media, or NAACP to listen to the whole tape of her speech. Meanwhile Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and other Fox News commentators were having a field day condemning Ms. Sherrod and heralding it as the latest evidence that Blacks can be racist. Fearful of the media firepower of Glenn Beck, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ordered Ms. Sherrod to resign. Having called out the Tea Party movement for harboring racist elements in their ranks, Benjamin Todd Jealous, President of the NAACP, felt obliged to join in the condemnation posthaste.
All the while, a media feeding frenzy was obscuring a remarkable story of compassion by one human being toward another. To his credit Tony Harris, news anchor at CNN, led the way in correcting an injustice by permitting Ms. Sherrod to tell the whole truth on his show – the rest of CNN followed suit. Political commentator Donna Brazile also refused to rush to judgment. Of course, everyone now knows “the rest of the story.” First, the incident in question took place twenty-four years ago when Ms. Sherrod was working for a non-profit organization, not a government agency. In addition, the truth of the matter is that she not only helped the White farmer, the experience served as an epiphany; she came to the realization that poor Whites are also exploited in America’s capitalist political economy. In other words, there are “class” and “race” dimensions to the struggle for social justice. Those at the top, the White bosses, bankers and power structure have no hesitation to exploit both poor and working class Blacks and Whites in the interest of preserving and expanding their property, profits, power and privileges. So, as the truth was revealed, what America saw was an African American woman whose father was murdered by a White man, and who was working with dispossessed Black farmers, willing to “rise above race” to assist a White farmer who was about to lose his farm. The nation was spellbound.
Beyond the fact that the media, NAACP and White House should have listened to the full tape before rushing to judgment, there are a number of lessons to be learned from this debacle. First, this entire incident must be viewed within the context of a concerted rightwing assault on Black progress that seeks to relocate the burden of responsibility for the unfinished civil rights/human rights agenda on the shoulders of Black people. For sheer political gain, Ronald Reagan masterfully began to use terms like “reverse discrimination” and “Black racism” to exploit White resentment and backlash against the demands and advances of the civil rights movement. Taking their cue from Reagan, rightwing opportunists sought to convince Whites that gains being made by Blacks were encroaching on their rights. This strategy also was calculated to relieve White America of any sense of guilt or responsibility for centuries of enslavement, legal and de facto discrimination and segregation. In that regard, the right adopted the tactic of giving moral equivalency to periodic instances of bigotry by Blacks against Whites or incidents that appear to be prejudiced. The Andrew Breitbart doctored tape fits this “you see Blacks can be racist too” script.
Ms. Sherrod is correct to assert that White poor and working class people are adversely affected by policies that favor the rich and the powerful. However, historically the problem has been that race/racism has been used as a strategy to divide and exploit. The system of “Jim Crow” in the South was predicated on preventing Blacks and White poor and working people from ever uniting. To achieve this objective the White ruling class provided psychological and material incentives to the masses based on their “Whiteness” -- “White Only” facilities and certain jobs “set aside” for Whites. Though White poor and working class people were being exploited by their more well off kith and kin, at least they had special privileges and incentives that separated them from their Black counter-parts.
The fact is that without the promised “forty acres and a mule,” after the Civil War, millions of formerly enslaved Africans were forced back onto the very plantations from which they had been “emancipated’ to subsist as sharecroppers, tenant farmers and agricultural laborers. This mass peonage was tantamount to neo-slavery. Despite these conditions, miraculously thousands of Black families managed to acquire millions of acres of land in a courageous effort to build a better future. They achieved this improbable feat in a hostile environment where private sector institutions and government agencies constantly conspired to undermine their progress or take their land. The struggle to save Black farmers has persisted for generations. In the 60’s the Emergency Land Fund under the leadership of Joe Brooks; Southern Cooperative Development Fund, Father A.J. McKnight; Federation of Southern Farm Cooperatives, Charles Prejean; and, Southwest Georgia Project, Charles Sherrod were the major organizations engaged in this longstanding struggle.
Twenty-four years ago, Ms. Sherrod was working for a non-profit organization attempting to help Black farmers get justice from state and federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture. No doubt there were White farmers confronting difficulties during this and previous periods, but make no mistake about it, the reality of racism as reflected in the southern system of segregation/apartheid meant that Black farmers overwhelmingly bore the brunt of discriminatory policies by private sector and government agencies based on race and class. Because of race/racism, poor and working class Blacks suffer degradation, discrimination and exploitation far more than Whites do. In addition, that reality was a fact of life twenty-four years ago and it remains so today. This is the context within which we must assess Ms. Sherrod’s decision whether and how much to respond to a White farmer’s request for assistance.
Now for the shocker; though it was certainly magnanimous that Ms. Sherrod chose to assist the White farmer, her failure to do so would not have been a racist act. Racism is defined as “prejudice + power.” Ms. Sherrod was not a governmental official with the power to translate bias, prejudice or bigotry into law and/or to use the power of official office to exclude or fail to serve. Ms. Sherrod was under no obligation to assist the White farmer as an employee of a non-profit organization whose mission was to serve Black farmers and given the enormity of the injustices plaguing this constituency. There is no indication that Ms. Sherrod was considering withholding assistance out of malice. Therefore, her decision not to help would have been based on priority not prejudice. Had she simply stopped at making a referral (as she initially did), that would have been above and beyond the call of duty under the circumstance – but she chose to do more.
As unpleasant as it might seem to some, it is important to make this point because I refuse, and we as people of African descent must refuse, to be put on the defensive by rightwing reactionaries or well-meaning people who simply do not understand the historical and contemporary realities of racism in America. Even if Ms. Sherrod had refused to assist the White farmer out of a sense of anger/rage/hostility, the context /background of her choice should have caused people of goodwill to understand her decision even if they disagreed. How is it that the late Senator Robert Byrd could admit to being an active member of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist organization, as a young man and be hailed as one of the great leaders of the Senate while Shirley Sherrod, an advocate for disenfranchised Black farmers, would have been run out of office had she chosen not to assist the White farmer 24 years ago? The former White terrorist dies a hero, but a victim of White terrorism might have been scorned because her pent up anger led her to refuse to assist a White person!
This leads me to a discussion of attempts by reactionaries to claim moral equivalency between occasional acts of Black rage committed against Whites and individual and institutional/structural racism by Whites. There is no question that Blacks may occasionally engage in acts that are bigoted, e.g., striking out against any White person because of the history of racial oppression in this country or by making sweeping generalizations that cast blame on all White people because of the behavior of some. However, even these acts are rooted in the collective memory of Black people about the long history of enslavement, apartheid, lynching and other forms of racial violence. While it is unacceptable, it is understandable. What is not equivalent or understandable is why any White person would feel bigoted toward Black people. There is no history of people of African descent enslaving, systematically exploiting or utilizing racial violence to intimidate and exclude Whites from equal access and participation in the social, economic and political life of this country. Blacks may even occasionally think or call something racist when it may not be true. Given our history of enslavement, degradation and oppression under a system of White supremacy, that should be understandable; White rage, resentment and efforts to undermine Black progress are not.
On CNN’s Reliable Sources, Howard Kurtz played an excerpt of an interview in which Anderson Cooper asked Ms. Sherrod whether she believed Andrew Breitbart is a racist. She responded in the affirmative and suggested that he is trying to send Black people back to slavery (which was a figure of speech of course). Kurtz pounced on the statement and asked the panel whether her statement was appropriate, suggesting somehow that she did not have the right to express her feelings as someone who has experienced racism. He indicated that she was out of order for saying such a thing. I seriously doubt that Kurtz would have asked the same question or responded in the same manner if a Jewish person had said that someone who had done something highly offensive to Jews was anti-Semitic and was trying to send them back to concentration camps. Allegations of anti-Semitism are accepted almost without question, and the Jewish holocaust is correctly referenced with solemnity and righteous outrage. Allegations about racism and the impact of enslavement on Black people do not carry the same weight.
The final lesson from the Shirley Sherrod debacle has to do with who really needs to hear her story about rising above race. While it was certainly appropriate that she shared her story with a chapter of the NAACP, let me be blunt, she was speaking to the wrong audience. Her message needs to be heard by Whites who still inexplicably harbor attitudes of superiority and hostility towards Blacks. Blacks have always been receptive to “rising above race” to work with Whites. The problem has been with the Whites who are susceptible to racism as a strategy to divide and exploit. It is White people not Black people who need to be lectured to about moving beyond race to unite with Blacks and other people of color to challenge the hegemony of the mostly White ruling elite.
I cite these lessons because people of African descent in America must not be on the defensive in the face of the rightwing onslaught. We cannot allow the individual or institutional victimizer to redefine the victims as the villains. Armed with knowledge/information and the lessons of history, we must go on the offensive. “Like a tree planted by the waters, we shall not be moved.”
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at email@example.com.