Reflections on Shirley Sherrod

AKIE BERMISS: Let us take a minute and think about the amount of time that has elapsed since the first Shirley Sherrod video broke. Just about week ago the media/blogosphere was all a twitter over a video of the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture[ speaking at an NAACP function and APPARENTLY confessing to having committed reverse racism. Just a week ago, but of course it seems like ages ago. What are we talking about today? Probably the final death throws of the not-so-important Wikileaks/Afghanistan story, right? I mean, before the Sherrod story broke, all the talk was about Charlie Rangel and the ethics committee. Before THAT scandal we were talking about how watered-down but symbolically-good the financial reform was going to be. We live in the age of the instant story, the instant story. The 24-hour news cycle and all the spin that is fit to print. Trouble is all this new coverage hasn’t led to MORE coverage or MORE news — its led to more coverage of less topics. Its almost fetishistic myopia.

And so for a few days last week, Sherrod, the NAACP, Obama, and “reverse-racism” were the story burning on all cylinders.

Let this be a disclaimer, I don’t really think the Sherrod story was such a big story in and of itself. I mean, Sherrod herself didn’t actually do anything wrong. Her only crime is speaking before an audience as if they were intelligent adults capable of dealing with all the elements of a cogent speak. People who knew how a convincing argument is constructed and how a change of heart is demonstrated (by explaining both sides of the thinking). And, finally, how a superior argument is proven superior (by comparing it to the inferior argument point-by-point to demonstrate supremacy of thought). Most intelligent adults understand this and don’t really have an dispute with it. Unfortunately, the instantaneous nature of our news-politics complex is such that there isn’t much time for anything intelligent adults to do any thinking. The Sherrod video came out and before anyone had had any time to see how much truth there was to it, we were all reacting to it like it was gospel truth.

First mistake.

Like I said, the story itself is not such a big deal. Sherrod did nothing wrong. She was made to resign because of a grave misunderstanding. And few hours after that, the apologies were coming in left and right. The next day, she was working for the government. And by Friday, she’d received a formal apology from the President personally. Really a non-story, if you think about it. Not only were her words taken completely out of context and not only was the story she was telling decades old — it turns out the thrust of the speech was to illuminate the reasons for Sherrod’s advocation for disregarding racial issues when it comes to need-based concerns. I’m not sure if that irony or satire or insanity — but whatever it is, the gods must be laughing.

For me the real story is America, the media, and how we all relate to President Obama like a lodestone for all things racial. There is no question in my mind that this story would never have made it to the national stage if Obama were a America’s first African-American President. Its like we’ve all lost our minds. We’re all back in the Sociology of Race 101 class from first semester freshman year. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard so many terrible attempts to define “racism” in my life! And I’m not upset about it: what do you expect from a country that has basically been ignoring this issue for the last 50 years? We finally have an African-American in the Oval Office and so of course now race is apart of our balanced breakfast. Its everywhere. And the attempts to CONTINUE to not deal with it (read: post-racial America) have backfired in nearly every instance. First there was the RNC’s election of Michael Steele (we’re still scratching our heads over that one),then the Tea-Party was formed, then there was the Skip Gates situation which ended in the after-school-special Beer Summit, then we had the NAACP calling out the Tea-Party for harboring racist elements.

And that’s where last week came from. It was a strange starting point for some of us because, for many of us, there is no surprise that the Tea-Party is harboring racist elements. For most people who follow the news, the NAACP was waaaay late to the game. There was no real news there. One way to be sure that something is a non-story? Make sure that Sarah Palin thinks its really important. So I was thinking‚Ķ yep, racism in America: so what?

But that seemed to be exactly what Breitbart & Co. were waiting for because THAT is what cause them to come firing back with “evidence” that the NAACP is harboring “reverse-racists.” And that evidence was Sherrod’s speech which, as we’ve covered already, was actually about crossing racial divides and over-coming preconceptions to do well by each other‚Ķ regardless of race. And still, I think it might’ve been a non-starter but for how the media took it and ran with it.

Seemingly without thinking — like mindless, ravenous hordes — the media crawled all over the story like it was the Watergate scandal. FOXNews, on the right, got all over Sherrod and the NAACP for being reverse-racists. They came down on the Obama Administration for hiring a woman who was a reverse racist. They bemoaned the depravity and audacity of Sherrod to speak so openly about her reverse-racism at an NAACP event! And they cried bloody murder that, at last (at LONG LAST) there was proof that the Obama Administration was somehow a haven for black people seeking vengeance on white people — for being white. That this was the rise of the new world order. Save but for this video getting leaked, and for the news picking it up, and for intelligent minds realizing that this was the WRONG thing to advocate. And, for all the fabricated outrage over at FOXNews, you’ve got to appreciate that, at the very least, they know how to stick to message. Every attack was leveled at Obama. If you’d watched FoxNews that evening, you’d have though the world was going to hell in a hand-basket and that Obama was the sole cause of it. It was a veritable orgy of race-baiting and fear-mongering. I tip my hat to you, FoxNews.

Meanwhile, the other news agencies tripped all over themselves to cover the story adequately. There was outrage and disbelief at Sherrod; there was skepticism about Breitbart and his sources; there was constant replaying of the video. And then the NAACP and the Obama Administration got involved. Sherrod was forced to resign. The NAACP condemned her comments AS being “reverse-racism”, and that’s when the shit hit the fan. CNN covered it with the usual vapid, skin-deep repetitiousness. And MSNBC, that bastion of liberal intelligence, came out blasting everything in sight. The hit FoxNews for covering the story too rabidly, they hit the Obama Administration for making Sherrod resign and not standing up for her, for not going to the mattresses — so to speak — with the Conservative media, they hit the NAACP for doing wrong by their own constituent. And THEN they hit up the media IN GENERAL for not covering the story with the necessary serious, diligence, and gravitas. They crawled all over the Obama Administration for “losing the news cycle” by firing someone who appeared to have done an egregious and non-ethical thing in service to the government. The belittled the Administration for its “poor” handling of the situation. I would probably have to count on two hands how many times they called the Obama Administration “stupid” that night. It was a real high-watermark for the network.

In short, everybody lost it. They all erupted in hyperbole and superlative. It was a news melee. A free-for-all. A royal rumble. Cartoonish chin-wagging, head-nodding, and hand-wringing on all accounts.

And the rest is history, of course. But I think the media reaction is the real story. I’m glad I heard the story originally on NPR, otherwise I’m not sure I’d have the perspective I do. By the evening, all the 24-hour news networks are into the opinion/talking-head shows and there is very little news work going on. But something that this did demonstrate to me was just how piss-poor those networks are when it comes to things like this. This story was perhaps a bit complicated because things didn’t really get worked out until about 24 or 36 hours after the video came out. Unfortunately, those news organizations have to mount several hour-long message-based shows each night. No matter what the story is‚Ķ or whether the story isn’t quite resolved. And there’s a lot of leeway for personal opinion. Even among (perhaps especially among) us liberal intellectuals who like to pride ourselves on analysis of facts and figures. When something racial comes down the pike, we all have our respective axes to grind. That’s where the impartiality of news-persons is all the more important to maintain, but that is where we had a huge nearly across-the-board failure from all those channels which are supposed to be specializing in news.

And like I said, the people we depend on to be intelligent and analytical of what is happening in the news are unable to demonstrate that intelligence because of the rush to get on top of stories that are exploding our national consciousness. And those stories are only really explosive because of the person in the White House right now. And so there seems to be this feeling that every day is a battle gain ground in the debate over who is rightest. Is Obama a good President? Is he too left, right, or centrist? Why doesn’t he fight more with conservatives? Why doesn’t he just shove his agenda down congress’ throat? When will he make good on this or that promise from the campaign? And what is he going to do for Democrats who are running for reelection this fall? So many criticisms from so many sources, but almost none of them are practical or pragmatic. Almost none of them take into account the mountain of obstacles standing in the way of this President every time he tries to get something done. Almost none of it takes into account the appallingly fragile state of international relations with America. And nearly none of it is capable of being critical of anything beyond the actions of the day. There is practically no long-term thinking.

At some point, enough is enough, right? At some point we have simply accept that the President is black and so every pro-black group is going to be looking for anyone even beginning to make any noise about his blackness. And every anti-black/racist group is going to look for any evidence that he is less than what he has thus far proven to be. And we should acknowledge that for the White House to come out and battle every single race-baiting, fear-fanning, government-defaming so-called conservative would be a disasters. As therapeutic as it might be to have Obama take on every wack-job that talks smack about him and have him put that person in their place — the Administration is far too busy getting things done.

And I’m not advocating that we all go back to playing our safe little roles. That if we just leave race alone and return to the good ole’ days when Republicans hated every big government bill and Democrats hated the religious right, rich people, and southerners — that we’d suddenly be back to the equity and respectability of the 90s or something. Rather, that we are indeed poised on the precipice of a new era of politics. That Obama is, indeed, a game-changer and that race is, indeed, something we must deal with (and soon). I am saying that these are more complex times than we’ve seen in a great many years. With the recession, the war, climate change, health issues, and international politics and concerns we are dealing with the transitional period to beat all transitional periods. The same old news coverage won’t work. The same old pandering to the base won’t do the trick.

We all just look like idiots while real issues are passing us by. Financial reform got signed into law last week — no one noticed. We began heading over to Korea to practice war games in a move that may or may not provoke North Korea to do something drastic. The oil clean-up in the Gulf continues. And we spent three days talking about a non-story? BECAUSE it was a non-story?! And then admonishing each other for being so caught up in the non-story that we missed the real story underneath it?

For a while last week, Sherrod was the only real story that was happening. And then it was over and we were all trying to catch up on real news too late. And, I’m not surprised, honestly. Just disappointed.

JESSICA BADER: Of everyone even peripherally involved in the Shirley Sherrod saga, only three people – Sherrod herself and the white couple whose farm she helped save all those years ago –  came out of it not looking bad in some way. In a slightly gentler universe, the story Sherrod had told at that NAACP function would be the inspiration for a saccharine Lifetime movie chock-full of important lessons. In the universe as it is, things took a far more depressing turn.

The greatest share of the blame for how things quickly spiraled out of control has to go to Andrew Breitbart, no stranger to injecting selectively edited video footage into the media’s bloodstream and seemingly motivated more by a desire to hit back at the NAACP for pointing out that the Tea Party movement has some racist elements than by any care for the truth. Next on the list of culprits are the pundits and media outlets who ran with the video even though it came from someone with a history of putting out misleading video in the service of his agenda, followed by the officials at the Department of Agriculture (and perhaps within the Obama White House) who were guided by the decidedly un-Obama traits of panic, disinterest in the facts, and subservience to the 24-hour-news cycle.

It’s worth considering why the administration reacted so poorly when standing firm is the rule against other right-wing lines of attack (compare, for example, the decision to go ahead and give Donald Berwick a recess appointment despite the effort by the right to selectively compile bits from speeches he’s given to paint him as the number-one fan of rationing and death panels). I agree with much of Jonathan Chait’s theory that racial issues are the one area where team Obama often runs scared, although I take issue with his timeline – I think that the administration was taken by surprise when Obama’s comments on the Henry Louis Gates arrest resulted in such a firestorm right around this time last year, and that it’s only since then that they’ve been petrified of being accused of favoring minorities over whites.

As for the predictable calls for a “national conversation on race” in the wake of what happened, I think that those who advocate that are missing the point. What we really need are millions of little conversations every single day between co-workers and classmates and neighbors and people waiting in line at the supermarket, small talk between people with different histories and skin tones, who celebrate different holidays and have different accents, those daily chips away at the idea that we’re members of different tribes fighting over resources. Maybe I’m still a naive utopian beneath my cynical exterior, maybe my perspective is skewed by having lived my entire life in a city where it’s just not possible to live a segregated existence, but the humble act of seeing the people around you as, well, people and not letting isolation breed misunderstanding breed resentment seems to me more powerful than pundits trotting out their favorite theories once again. That’s the real lesson of Shirley Sherrod’s speech.

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