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Shirley Sherrod and post-racial America: 'snookered', and the third rail of race in Raleigh

What a difference 24 hours makes, and it only further proves that the third rail of race continues to win over the fantasy of a “post-racial” America. “Journalist” Andrew Breitbart now has his back to the wall as the full video of former USDA official Shirley Sherrod has been released, and the meme he presented — that she (and the NAACP tacitly) endorsed racial discrimination on tape before an audience, has been proven to be a lie.

I was sitting in the airport when writing my first post on the matter (“Woman overboard as USDA official gets the boot for racial remarks; claims she was forced to resign”), and when I landed in Vegas, the whole ground had shifted in this story.

Breitbart’s current version of events – that he didn’t edit the video and he presented what his source initially gave him of course doesn’t wash journalistically, but the facts as presented in what was released, rightfully provoked alarm, negative reactions and ultimately cost Shirley Sherrod her job.

And she should get her job back. Better yet, a promotion.

The NAACP, which issued a harsh, but appropriate initial reaction given what Ben Jealous and Co. knew at the time, and given the intense 24-hour news cycle we live in. Why? It’s the sensitivity toward the issue of racism and discrimination — no matter the point of origin — that is the focus of the organization. That it had been battling with Tea Party forces over race only made the matter worse. Sherrod”s remarks out of context were completely racist; in full it is a story of redemption after her own internal, emotional struggle to get beyond her personal views on race relations many years ago.

I think little has been said about the impact of 24-hour news and the pressure to react “now,” explain later, that places spokespeople in professional jeopardy — no reaction or comment for the media becomes an indictment of its own, so what seem like mandatory snap judgments can blow up in your face. And it did; certainly conclusions in my post reflected a disbelief at what Sherrod said, and she deserves an apology from me as well. But the NAACP stood up and took it in the chin and apologized and pointed the blame where it belongs – on the right wing spin machine, this time with the bullseye on Breitbart. (See below the fold for its latest statement).

However it’s a different story for Tom Vilsack of the USDA and the White House (the latter now claims zero involvement, leaving Vilsack to take the fall). They are the ones with the power to fire/hire Sherrod, so they are the parties here that own this  –  they are the only ones able to resolve the wrong done to her. The Obama administration and its departments have to operate at a higher standard as an employer. Only after due diligence in investigating thoroughly what had become a personnel matter should it have put Sherrod on the chopping block. It handled it badly — and publicly. I don’t blame her if she doesn’t want to deal with this administration again.

But this is not new for this admin. It has been an example of the wimp factor over and over, caving at the first sign Glenn Beck or any other stooge has soiled his/her diapers over an issue. It’s sad to watch, and frustrating beyond belief. Now we all know that if there had not been a full video of Sherrod’s speech, the Obama administration would not deny any involvement in tossing her overboard. We’ll just leave it at that.

***

But this is not the only third rail of race being touched right now. It’s hard to believe it’s 2010 and we’re dealing with this shite. From Facing South (Note: I’m a board member of its parent org, The Institute for Southern Studies):

The fight against school re-segregation heats up in North Carolina

A thousand people marched through the streets of North Carolina’s capital yesterday to protest the local school board’s dismantling of a lauded student assignment policy based on economic diversity in favor of neighborhood schools — a move many fear will lead to de facto re-segregation.

Nineteen protesters were arrested, all for nonviolent infractions and most for disrupting the the school board meeting that followed the march by holding hands, chanting and refusing to leave the podium.

…The controversy began last year when elections were held for four of nine school board seats in Wake County, the state’s largest school district. Conservative candidates backed by Republican politicians including former state Rep. Art Pope — a businessman and director of the right-wing group Americans for Prosperity — won all of those races, joining an ally already on the board to create a new conservative majority.

The districts where the elections were held were primarily white and suburban or rural. No seats were up in the four districts representing most of Raleigh, where the county’s low-income and minority populations are concentrated, and where the board members support the diversity policy. The county’s school board members are all elected from geographic districts, with no at-large representatives.

As promised, the new majority immediately set out to dismantle the diversity policy instituted in 2000. Rather than assigning students by race, which courts have rejected, the policy assigned them in part by economics, using the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches as a guide. The new board plans instead to divide the county into “neighborhood attendance zones” to be phased in over the next several years.

Because residential neighborhoods tend to be divided by income, there are well-founded fears that the new policy will inevitably end up limiting economic diversity. A research paper by the Wake Education Partnership — a nonprofit launched by the local business community to support public schools — found the plan would lead not only to concentrated poverty in some schools but also overcrowding.  

On average, students from high-poverty schools do not perform as well on assessments of reading and math, according to a recent analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics. They also have higher drop-out rates and are less likely to go on to college.

(WRAL):

At the morning rally, speakers quoted Martin Luther King Jr., remembered the days of segregated water fountains and likened the current situation to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education battle. Rev. William Barber [head of NC’s NAACP] talked about America’s legacy of racial strife to galvanize the crowd.

“Too many prayers were prayed,” Barber said. “Too many lives were sacrificed. Too much blood was shed. Too many tears were shed. We can’t turn back now.”

What we need are more, not fewer, discussions about race.

And the President could get back to basics and lead on this issue, but I’ve not seen evidence that he’s willing to lead on this or a host of other issues if it involves any inkling that it will cost him politically.NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous issued the following statement today after a careful investigation into the presentation of former USDA Official Shirley Sherrod.

“The NAACP has a zero tolerance policy against racial discrimination, whether practiced by blacks, whites, or any other group.

The NAACP also has long championed and embraced transformation by people who have moved beyond racial bias. Most notably, we have done so for late Alabama Governor George Wallace and late US Senator Robert Byrd — each a man who had associated with and supported white supremacists and their cause before embracing civil rights for all.

With regard to the initial media coverage of the resignation of USDA Official Shirley Sherrod, we have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias.

Having reviewed the full tape, spoken to Ms. Sherrod, and most importantly heard the testimony of the white farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans.  

The fact is Ms. Sherrod did help the white farmers mentioned in her speech.  They personally credit her with helping to save their family farm.

Moreover, this incident and the lesson it prompted occurred more that 20 years before she went to work for USDA.

Finally, she was sharing this account as part of a story of transformation and redemption. In the full video, Ms.Sherrod says she realized that the dislocation of farmers is about “haves and have nots.”  “It’s not just about black people, it’s about poor people,” says Sherrod in the speech. “We have to get to the point where race exists but it doesn’t matter.”

This is a teachable moment, for activists and for journalists.

Most Americans agree that racism has no place in American Society.  We also believe that civil and human rights have to be measured by a single yardstick.

The NAACP has demonstrated its commitment to live by that standard.

The Tea Party Federation took a step in that direction when it expelled the Tea Party Express over the weekend. Unfortunately, we have yet to hear from other leaders in the Tea Party movement like Dick Armey and Sarah Palin, who have been virtually silent on the “internal bigotry” issue.

Next time we are confronted by a racial controversy broken by Fox News or their allies in the Tea Party like Mr. Breitbart, we will consider the source and be more deliberate in responding.  The tape of Ms. Sherrod’s speech at an NAACP banquet was deliberately edited to create a false impression of racial bias, and to create a controversy where none existed.  This just shows the lengths to which extremist elements will go to discredit legitimate opposition.

According to the USDA, Sherrod’s statements prompted her dismissal. While we understand why Secretary Vilsack believes this false controversy will impede her ability to function in the role, we urge him to reconsider.

Finally, we hope this incident will heighten Congress’s urgency in dealing with the well documented findings of discrimination toward black, Latino, Asian American and Native American farmers, as well as female farmers of all races.”

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding

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