The recent firing of Shirley Sherrod by the secretary of agriculture after an excerpt of a video of her speech at an NAACP event was used to portray her as a poster child for anti-white racism by Andrew Breibart, the conservative media personality, provoked a firestorm of controversy about race and its legacies in American life. The unseemly rush to escape the fallout from the video excerpt by the Department of Agriculture leadership and which invoked unverified White House pressure to have her resign as quickly as possible, led to the denial of due process to Sherrod at the Department of Agriculture. When she was condemned by Benjamin Jealous, the president of the NAACP ( later retracted) and commentators like Bill O’Reilly of Fox News (also retracted), it was evident that Sherrod had become a target of the vituperative politics, which has transformed American public debate into an incessant stream of calumny. The rapid dissemination of the video excerpt across the mainstream media outlets added to the reckless coverage of the story that ensued.
The hysteria dissipated as soon as the full video of Sherrod’s speech was made public. It revealed that her story was one of personal transcendence of the crippling legacies of racial resentments due to the murder of her father in rural Georgia, where the perpetrator went unpunished, and her evolution as an activist committed to challenging the institutionalized politics of divide-and-rule among racial groups that has governed American life. Like her husband, Charles Sherrod, who had emerged as a prominent leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordination Committee in the 1960s during the height of the civil rights struggle, Sherrod revealed herself to be another exemplar of the generation of African-Americans whose generosity of spirit and vision of citizenship made it possible for America to escape the philosophical penury of the “Jim Crow” legal regime and its sterile political culture. In effect, Sherrod’s personal story in her address to the NAACP audience was a metaphor of the challenge that faces America in contemporary context – finding ways for the society to rise above its sordid history of racist politics.
It was left to Barack Obama as president to remind the American public of the most important lesson from the episode: “We have to take our time and think these issues through.”(1) For a society where racist sentiment remains deeply embedded in the body politic and is often inflamed for political agendas – large and small – Obama’s caution reflected the awareness that his own ascent to the presidency has unleashed destabilizing currents of racist resentment in American society. As the current anti-immigrant campaign in Arizona suggests, those resentments are not directed solely against African-Americans. The emergence of the Latino/Hispanic community as the largest minority group in contemporary America and an increasingly critical constituency in elections across the country, has triggered competition by the two major parties for their votes. The volatile issue of undocumented workers, creating a route to legal status for these migrants and the threat of police profiling and harassment of both American citizens and immigrants, have all become volatile issues in Arizona with implications for the midterm Congressional and local elections later this year. The increasing cultural pluralism that defines race and citizenship in contemporary America and the fact that the United States is being led by its first African-American president, have combined to expose the ugly legacies of white supremacist politics in American life.
The contemporary context is a reminder that changes in the American racial status quo are never comfortable for all Americans and trigger irrational outbursts that have to be contained in a society that is prone to episodes of violence against minority communities and individuals. As Mark Twain observed more than a century ago in his parody of American cultural mores at the turn of the 20th century – “The United States of Lyncherdom” – lynching had become “a fashion which will spread wide and wider, year by year, covering state after state, as with an advancing disease.” In the course of its spread in post-Civil War America as a cultural, political and quasi-religious phenomenon, lynching and its collective counterpart, pogroms, became devices used by whites to exorcise the “threat” that African-Americans – and others not accepted as “white” – were perceived to pose to the sanctity of segregation and white supremacy in Jim Crow America. Lynching, thus, encapsulated the finding of the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857 which ruled that: “They [the Negro African race (to use the term from the original decision)] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect …”(2)
It is arguable that Sherrod, in being denied due process to defend herself when faced with a smear campaign designed to portray her as an anti-white racist and being fired summarily in response to the video excerpt of her speech, was made subject to a discredited legal doctrine that remains a subconscious reflex in contemporary America. Happily for her, the recognition of the grave injustice done to her has been recognized and she has been made an offer to return to the US Department of Agriculture. This legacy of racism as legal doctrine and psychological conditioning is also at the heart of the hysterical efforts by the “Birther” movement to question the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s birth in Hawaii. For Americans who have been socialized into the notion that whites can lay claim to American citizenship and political office without question, Obama is seen as an interloper whose accession to the presidency is simply unimaginable.
It is striking that very little attention has been paid to the fact that John McCain, who ran for president against Obama, was born in the Panama Canal Zone where his father was serving in the US Navy.(3) Being white, a former military officer and son of a military officer and Republican, the issues of the place and legitimacy of McCain’s birth are/were apparently not considered as important as Obama’s origins in Hawaii. Again, according to the Dred Scott decision on the issue of eligibility for citizenship in the early American Republic: “The first of these acts is the naturalization law, which was passed at the second session of the first Congress, March 26, 1790 and confines the right of becoming citizens ‘to aliens being free white persons.”‘(4) Thus, the lack a sustained campaign to question McCain’s citizenship can be interpreted as the deference to the notion that whites have an unquestioned entitlement to American citizenship while people of color, including the large numbers of people of Native American and Hispanic origin in McCain’s home state, Arizona, can be subject to stop and search procedures by law enforcement officials under recent immigration legislation signed by the Governor of that state. It is to the Obama administration’s credit that it has decided to mount a court challenge to the Arizona legislation.
The Sherrod episode has provided powerful insights into the politics of calumny that has increasingly overtaken contemporary American public life and the undercurrents of race that have driven debates over race, citizenship, rights and justice in an increasingly fractured society. It is, perhaps, time to reflect upon Teddy Roosevelt’s 1906 State of the Union Address:
“The members of the white race on the other hand should understand that every lynching represents by just so much a loosening of the bands of civilization; that the spirit of lynching inevitably throws into prominence in the community all the foul and evil creatures who dwell therein. No man can take part in the torture of a human being without having his own moral nature permanently lowered. Every lynching means just so much moral deterioration in all the children who have any knowledge of it, and therefore just so much additional trouble for the next generation of Americans.
Let justice be both sure and swift; but let it be justice under the law and not the wild and crooked savagery of a mob.”
Roosevelt, as a Republican president, had invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House in 1901. He was roundly condemned by Southerners for violating the color line and offering a symbolic recognition to African-Americans that was dangerous to the Jim Crow order. The invitation to dinner suggested that an African-American was the social equal of the president. Notwithstanding his own racial prejudices that were shared by the majority of his contemporaries, Roosevelt, as president, was sensitive to the corrosive effect of racism upon American life and culture in the early 20th century.
It is striking that at the beginning of the 20th century, Mark Twain, the vociferous critic of American imperialism, and Teddy Roosevelt, an architect of the American imperial project, shared a recognition that the psychology that drove lynching in American life was “beyond the pale.” The Sherrod episode should encourage Americans in the first decade of the 21st century to reflect upon the fact that, notwithstanding the election of an African-American president, the society is still trapped by spasms of racial hysteria that illustrate “a loosening of the bands of civilization …”
2. Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856).
3. See Carl Hulse, “McCain’s Canal Zone Birth Prompts Queries About Whether That Rules Him Out,” The New York Times, February 28, 2008, for an account of the issue.
4. Scott v. Sanford.