Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shirley, Shirley, Shirley!

“If sister or brother sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the brother or sister listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the sister or brother refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Matthew 18:15-17

In a speech this spring to the Georgia NAACP, Shirley Sherrod told a story of her own growth in the area of race relations. She said that after her father’s death she had vowed that she would continue to live in the South and that she would dedicate herself to changing the culture and the conditions. Then she admitted that as a young person her commitment was really to changing the South for Black people. But sometimes, she said reflectively, “God shows you another way.”

She told about a time, twenty-four years ago, when she was working for a non-profit agency helping people keep their family farms, and a white couple came to her. Her initial reaction, she said, was to hold back and to refer them to a white lawyer and let them work with “one of their own kind.” But in the course of working with the couple, she realized that her first reaction had been wrong; that the issue wasn’t about race, it was about poverty, and that she needed to be concerned about everyone.

Andrew Breitbart, a conservative blogger, put a short, carefully edited video of her speech on his web site. He showed only the part where she said that she did not want to help the couple because they were white. Mistakenly or intentionally, he claimed that she had done this as an employee of the US Department of Agriculture, and he implied that she had done it recently. He took the story which she had told as an example of how all of us need to grow beyond our narrow views and made it appear to make the very opposite point, that discrimination is okay if you are Black and the discrimination is against white people.

Almost instantly, the video went viral. The right wing reaction was that this proves the racism of the Obama administration. And the reaction from the Obama administration was to immediately ask for Shirley Sherrod’s resignation from the Department of Agriculture. Eventually, after seeing the full video of her forty-five minute speech, she was offered a new job with the Agriculture Department.

Three brief observations:

First, there is way too much “gotcha!” is our culture. We do not listen in order to understand, we listen in order to condemn. We look for the wrong word, or the wrong gesture, or the wrong body language. We are bored with substance and analysis. We don’t want to reflect and learn.

Second, the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, and by extension, the administration of President Obama, reacted shamefully. Andrew Breitbart is not a credible news source. He is an advocate and not a journalist. He put out the video as a counter-attack on the NAACP which had recently condemned the racism of the Tea Party. Ms. Sherrod reported that when she was asked to resign she repeatedly asked that they look first at her whole speech. The response was that there was no time, the story would be on Glenn Beck that evening and they needed her resignation before the video was shown on the air. There was no fact checking, and there was no due process.

The third and most important point is that racism is alive and well in America. And most Americans (apparently) do not understand institutional racism. Racial discrimination, though wrong, is not the same as racism. Even if Ms. Sherrod had actually given that couple less than her best, that would not be morally equivalent to the structural, institutional and cultural racism that is still part of the fabric of our society. Someone said that slavery and the racism that has followed it is America’s original sin, and it is. Most white Americans are unwilling to invest the necessary time and effort to understand institutional racism.


  1. Well said. Her story reminds me a bit of Joseph, in that her message was too important to be contained within the walls of that convention. God used a terrible, terrible misunderstanding in order to get the attention of a much bigger audience, so they could hear a story that everyone regardless of color could identify with, and hear a decision worth emulating.

  2. Great post. I agree, our 24x7 media culture has turned many of us into "gotcha" mentalities.