The Obama administration’s most unlikeable moment yet
Perhaps you couldn’t blame the White House for acting quickly. When the Obama administration heard that video had emerged of an obscure black official in the Agriculture Department cheerily outlining how she had decided not to help a white farmer as much as she might have otherwise because of the colour of his skin, it must have seemed like a crisis waiting to happen: and the received wisdom in these situations, of course, is to get ahead of the story, to kill it before it spirals out of your control, and to change the subject by the time the next news cycle comes around. And so Shirley Sherrod (pictured above) was forced to resign.
Wow, did that go badly. The full story of what happened – which the White House, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, large portions of the American media, and even the civil rights organisation the NAACP failed to establish before thoroughly condemning Sherrod and leaving her career in tatters – is as follows. The conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart was sent a video of Ms Sherrod’s remarks in a speech to an NAACP gathering. According to Breitbart, he received the video in edited form, which missed out critical context that turned the meaning of the clip on its head. (He made no effort to establish that context before distributing it.) In the 1986 incident to which she was referring, Sherrod was reluctant at first to help the white farmer; partly, that was the result of the murder of her father by a white farmer in Georgia in 1965. When an all-white grand jury investigated the case, says Sherrod, “There were witnesses, and [they] refused to indict him.”
So even if it would be wrong, you could sort of understand why that would lead someone to harbour racial resentment for a long time to come. In fact, though, the whole point of Sherrod’s story was that she did something else. She worked incredibly hard to help poor farmers from the south, and she ultimately helped that white farmer, who became a close friend, as much as she was able, and she concluded: “Working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who haven’t. They could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to help poor people.” The speech, viewed as a whole, is a hugely moving account of someone’s route to the most remarkable sort of forgiveness, of determination to move past anger because it just doesn’t help anyone. “I’ve come a long way,” Sherrod says, her voice seeming to break as she speaks. “I knew I couldn’t deal with hate. As my mother said, if we had tried to live with hate in our hearts we’d probably be dead now.”
Now that the full facts have emerged – facts they made no effort to establish before firing and condemning her – just about everyone involved has apologised to Sherrod, and she has been offered a new job by Vilsack. No word yet on whether she will accept it, but you could understand if she felt like that was a place she didn’t want to work any more.
Now, one obvious fact to emerge from this is that the conservative blogosphere, and its allies in the media, are not especially careful about who they hurt in pursuit of a political scalp that will hurt the Obama administration. But that’s so obvious as to be barely worth noting. No one will be surprised to learn that Bill O’Reilly issued a swift call for Sherrod’s resignation, or that Breitbart’s most salient comment after the full facts emerged was that he “could care less about Shirley Sherrod.’ Indeed, as this Washington Post story makes clear, Fox News was far from the biggest villain of the piece.
What’s much more striking and worrying is the way the Democratic administration and its allies acted. Sherrod was called three times in the same day by Agriculture Department officials urging her to resign; she was told that she had to quit immediately because the row was “going to be on Glenn Beck tonight”. Nor did the NAACP try to contact Sherrod before issuing a ruthless condemnation designed to put as much distance between the organisation and the story as possible. The reason for all this, of course, is that establishment liberals in America are utterly terrified of the brutality of the right-wing media, and will do whatever necessary to cut off those attacks before they happen – including throwing one of their own under the bus.
What a distressing lesson in the realities of public discourse in America. There’s been plenty of evidence before that the Obama administration is ruthless to the point of being callous when stories of this sort arise, that they’re petrified at the slightest whiff of a story about black-on-white racism, but this is just a different league of awful. I have never liked the president less.Tagged in: barack obama, Shirley Sherrod, Tom Vilsack, US politics
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