In the last 48 hours, America has again received a visit by its Bogeyman – race. The controversy over the videotaped remarks by U.S. Department of Agriculture official Ms. Shirley Sherrod should remind us of our nation’s unfinished business. The American Revolution did not provide a permanent prescription, and neither did the bloody insurgency called the Civil War. Neither did the pushback against “Jim Crow” called the civil rights movement or the brief period of post-movement politics in the Kennedy-Johnson presidential eras. The issue of race in America has always been there, lurking, like some monster hiding in a child’s closet waiting to spring out at just the right moment.
Ms. Sherrod was caught in the racial crossfire of right-wing exploitation of its constituency’s blind allegiance and intellectual dishonesty, a presidential administration’s racial paranoia, and a lack of sophistication and due diligence on the part of the nation’s largest civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The long-serving Department of Agriculture official had the misfortune of being a convenient foil in the war of words between the NAACP and the Tea Party that erupted last week when the civil rights group convened for its annual convention. Just as the NAACP was challenging the Tea Party to root out racists among its ranks, a right-wing activist fed the Fox News Channel, a media enabler of all things conservative, a truncated video clip of Ms. Sherrod, which appeared to be a confession that she had discriminated against a white farmer in her work. The truth of her comments is more evident in the full clip in which she explains that she had to overcome her own biases formed by the experiences of Blacks in order to fulfill her professional responsibilities.
Right-wing pundits quickly latched onto the abbreviated clip for an “I Got You” moment to try to make the case that the Obama administration was harboring closet Black bigots in its ranks. Sadly, some in the administration took the bait and suddenly her superiors asked Ms. Sherrod to resign despite her insistence that the clip of her speech was out of context. To make matters much worse, the NAACP, an organization that should know better, jumped into the fray and condemned Ms. Sherrod without fully investigating the matter. Given the source of the video, and the fact that the Fox News Channel was quick to air it, the NAACP should have exercised caution before adding its two-cents. Unfortunately, the organization helped legitimize an injustice that was occurring at lightning speed due to the pace of today’s fast-food style electronic “journalism.”
What is most evident with this episode is the nation’s continuing blind spot on matters of race. For all the praise he received for his campaign speech on race, President Obama has only once used the power of his bully pulpit to wade in the racial waters – during his “Beer Summit” after the arrest of Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates. Beyond that, this President has maintained his distance from the subject despite evidence of racial disparities in employment, health care and incarceration, and the rising militancy of white, right-wing militias that have been securing firearms at a record pace. Despite the belief among many that the President is doomed if he directly confronts racism, I believe that he cannot afford not to. Our collective refusal to deal honestly on race has a deep economic cost in terms of the unfulfilled potential of our nation and the creation of permanent fissures in society. Imagine what our country could be if it was allowed to be. In a very real way, we are all paying a significant tax when large segments of our society, namely Black Americans, are permanently cast out to the outer margins of existence.
Shirley Sherrod may get her job back. It probably is not worth the stress to return. She already has received an apology from the NAACP. It is doubtful that the Fox News Channel, the self-proclaimed bastion of “fair and balanced” reporting, will own up to its mischief. We will likely hear some “spin” put on the network’s deceitfulness. The right has perfected the art of misinformation and never having to say “sorry” when lies and deceptions are exposed. We cannot lay all the blame on the doorstep of Republican, right-wing politics. For too long, white liberals have used race to advance their own interests while giving lip service to the myriad of legitimate grievances Blacks bring to the table. The patronizing attitude of many on the left has been just as damaging to Black advancement, as has been racial histrionics of conservative activists.
Race is our unfinished business. It is the promissory note Dr. King claimed had been unfulfilled by America during his speech at the 1963 March on Washington. We see the “IOU’s” in the continuing display of the Confederate flag, the disproportionate joblessness of Black males, white abandonment of public education and the flight from neighborhoods once Blacks have arrived, as well as the daily indignities Blacks face in the workplace and social settings. American life in the 21st Century is defined by race as much as it was at the beginning of the 20th Century, with only the subtleness of racism today differentiating how opportunity is apportioned. The most significant national security threat we face is our failure to deal honestly on this issue.