Washington – After the Shirley Sherrod episode, there’s no longer any need to mince words: A cynical right-wing propaganda machine is peddling the poisonous fiction that when African-Americans or other minorities reach positions of power, they seek some kind of revenge against whites.
A few of the purveyors of this bigoted nonsense might actually believe it. Most of them, however, are merely seeking political gain by inviting white voters to question the motives and good faith of the nation’s first African-American president. This is really about tearing Barack Obama down.
Sherrod, until Monday an official with the Department of Agriculture, was supposed to be mere collateral damage. Andrew Breitbart, a smarmy provocateur who often speaks at tea party rallies, posted on his website a video snippet of a speech that Sherrod, who is African-American, gave to a NAACP meeting earlier this year. In it, Sherrod seemed to boast of having withheld from a white farmer some measure of aid that she would have given to a black farmer.
It looked like a clear case of black racism in action. Within hours, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had forced her to resign. The NAACP, under attack from the right for having denounced racism in the tea party movement, issued a statement blasting Sherrod and condemning her attitude as unacceptable.
But Breitbart had overstepped. The full video of Sherrod’s speech showed she wasn’t bragging about being a racist, she was telling what amounted to a parable about prejudice and reconciliation. For one thing, the incident happened in 1986 when she was working for a nonprofit, long before she joined the Obama administration. For another, she helped that white man and his family save their farm, and they became friends. Through him, she said, she learned to look past race toward our common humanity.
In effect, she was telling the story of America’s struggle with race, but with the roles reversed. For hundreds of years, black people were enslaved, oppressed and discriminated against by whites — until the civil rights movement gave us all a path toward redemption.
With the Obama presidency, though, has come a flurry of charges — from the likes of Breitbart but also from more substantial conservative figures — about alleged incidences of racial discrimination against whites by blacks and other minorities. Recall, for example, the way Obama’s critics had a fit when he offered an opinion about the confrontation between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a white police officer. Remember the over-the-top reaction when it was learned that Justice Sonia Sotomayor had once talked about how being a “wise Latina” might affect her thinking.
Newt Gingrich called Sotomayor a racist. He was lightning-quick to call Sherrod a racist, too. I’d suggest that the former House speaker consider switching to decaf, but I think he knows exactly what he’s doing.
These allegations of anti-white racism are being deliberately hyped and exaggerated because they are designed to make whites fearful. It won’t work with most people, of course, but it works with some — enough, perhaps, to help erode Obama’s political standing and damage his party’s prospects at the polls.
Before Sherrod, the cause celebre of the “You Must Fear Obama” campaign involved something called the New Black Panther Party. Never heard of it? That’s because it’s a tiny group that exists mainly in the fevered imaginations of its few members. Also in the alternate reality of Fox News: One of the network’s hosts has devoted more than three hours of air time in recent weeks to the grave threat posed by the NBPP. Actually, I suspect that this excess is at least partly an attempt by a relatively obscure anchor to boost her own notoriety.
The Sherrod case has fully exposed the right-wing campaign to use racial fear to destroy Obama’s presidency, and I hope the effect is to finally stiffen some spines in the administration. The way to deal with bullies is to confront them, not run away. Yet Sherrod was fired before even being allowed to tell her side of the story. She said the official who carried out the execution explained that she had to resign immediately because the story was going to be on Glenn Beck’s show that evening. Ironically, Beck was the only Fox host who, upon hearing the rest of Sherrod’s speech, promptly called for her to be reinstated. On Wednesday, Vilsack offered to rehire her.
Shirley Sherrod stuck to her principles and stood her ground. I hope the White House learns a lesson.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
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