Race, Politics and Cowardice: the Unethical Victimization of Shirley Sherrod

The forced resignation of Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod, an African-American, is far more significant than it appears. By itself, it is a deplorable example of an innocent citizen being victimized by a convergence of unethical conduct by the media, the Obama Administration, and the N.A.A.C.P. Sherrod’s fate, however, is also a warning, a frightening sign that racial and political tensions are rapidly spinning out of control in America, and that the very institutions we should be able to trust to apply reason, competence, courage and fairness to the issue of race are displaying cowardice, dishonesty and opportunism instead. I hope this is an isolated incident. Everything tells me it is not.

This sudden ethics train wreck developed when Andrew Breitbart, proprietor of the provocative, entertaining and thoroughly Right-leaning website Breitbart.com, posted a grainy video that he said showed Shirley Sherrod, U.S.D.A.’s state director of rural development for Georgia, speaking at a March 27 NAACP Freedom Fund banquet. In the clip, she is heard telling the audience about an instance in which she intentionally did less than she could have to help a white farmer avoid foreclosure, after he “took a long time … trying to show me he was superior” to her. In response to this bigoted insult, she said, Sherrod “didn’t give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough.”

Predictably, Fox News pounced on the video yesterday, and broadcast it. With lightening speed, in fact beating Fox to the punch, Sherrod’s employers at the Agriculture Department asked for and received her resignation.  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told CNN:

“There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA, and I strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person. We have been working hard through the past 18 months to reverse the checkered civil rights history at the department and take the issue of fairness and equality very seriously.”

On the heels of the decision at Agriculture, the N.A.A.C.P. weighed in, also condemning Sherrod. “Racism is about the abuse of power. Sherrod hit it in her position at USDA. According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race,” said Benjamin Todd Jealous, the civil rights group’s leader. “We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers.”

Nobody, apparently, was interested in the truth, or in treating Sherrod fairly. It is easy to see why. She was not a human being to any of these parties—Breitbart, the Obama Administration, or the N.A.A.C.P. To Breitbart, her speech was a useful weapon for the conservative media to build its case that many in Obama Administration are practicing reverse racism. To the Administration, Sherrod presented an opportunity to show that it had a no-tolerance policy regarding any kind of racism, black or white, thus helping its efforts to explain away the persistent New Black Panther voter intimidation scandal, which may implicate far bigger fish than Sherrod. The N.A.A.C.P., meanwhile, viewed Sherrod as a threat to its moral authority, having just successfully triggered chaos in the Tea Party movement with the brilliant tactic of calling for it to purge itself of “racist elements.” She had to be shunned.

Sherrod was sacrificed, in other words—collateral damage in the race and political wars. Incredibly, she had done nothing wrong at all:

  • The incident she described had occurred more than two decades ago.
  • She was not working for the U.S.D.A. at the time, but for a non-profit organization.
  • She was recounting the incident as an anecdote and reminiscence to show how she was wrong to react as she had. “This was 24 years ago, and I’m telling a story to try to unite people,” she told CNN. “I was speaking to that group, like I’ve done many groups, and I tell them about a time when I thought the issue was race and race only…I was telling the story of how working with him helped me to see the issue is not about race. It’s about those who have versus those who do not have.”

Sherrod has lost her job as the unintended result– and there will be others—of institutions that are supposed to be working to protect her seeking  self-serving political agendas while forsaking professional duty, integrity and competence.

The unethical offenders:

Breitbart and Fox News: Everyone should know, especially them, how videos can be completely misleading. The common YouTube practice of slicing off the beginning or end of a clip to make a celebrities or politicians appear to be saying something they are not is one of the leading sources of misinformation in this country. It is the duty of the media to expose the misrepresentations, not to exploit them. Breitbart and Fox had an obligation—to their audience, to Sherrod, to journalism and truth—to show the context of Sherrod’s remarks, and if they were not available, to consult her. They are not supposed to be manipulating facts to win an ideological war. This isn’t merely unfair and dishonest journalism; it is reckless and incompetent journalism.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Obama Administration: Sherrod said she tried to explain the context of her remarks to USDA officials, “but for some reason, the stuff Fox and the Tea Party does is scaring the administration. I told them to get the whole tape and look at the whole tape and see how I tell people we have to get beyond race and work together.” The Obama Administration, clearly, doesn’t care what really occurred, or that it is wildly unfair to force Sherrod to resign over a 24-year old incident that she cites today as a mistake. It has created suspicions and distrust of its own fairness and racial biases by repeated blunders, beginning with President Obama’s reflexive criticism of a white police officer in the arrest of a black Harvard professor before the President knew the facts of the matter, continuing with the appointment of racially-divisive figures like Van Jones, and reaching a boiling point now with revelations regarding the apparent tolerance of black on white voter intimidation by the New Black Panthers. Polls show a precipitous drop in President Obama’s approval rating among white voters, some of whom are beginning to suspect that the President didn’t spend all that time in his racist pastor’s church snoozing. Because of these problems of the Administration’s own making, the U.S.D.A. abandoned fairness, process, diligence and competence in the evaluation of the actions of its own employee. Because the Administration has eroded its own trustworthiness, Sherrod’s anecdote made her suspect too. A principled organization with principled leadership would have taken the time and effort to explain that Sherrod did nothing wrong, and would have been willing to endure politically-motivated criticism to ensure fair treatment of a non-political employee. Instead, the U.S.D.A. chose the easiest, politically-expedient and cowardly course, willfully ignoring the facts and the welfare of an innocent employee.

The N.A.A.C.P. and Ben Jealous: An organization that once fought for justice, human dignity and fairness for African-Americans intentionally supported the unjustified firing of a black woman to protect its own political flanks. The abandonment of principle and integrity this represents is mind-boggling. “Her actions were shameful,” Jealous said in his statement supporting the U.S.D.A. “While she went on to explain in the story that she ultimately realized her mistake, as well as the common predicament of working people of all races, she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done to this man.” What? Is Jealous really saying that an individual deserves to be fired from government service if he or she ever behaved in a racially biased manner, no matter how long ago, regardless of changed conduct, beliefs or heart? Is she being rightly punished, in Jeolous’s view, for not telling her anecdote properly? What difference does it make, in 2010, whether Sherrod treated the farmer correctly in 1986, while working for a different organization? Would Jealous, or anyone, think it was fair to be fired for wrongful conduct that occurred twenty years ago, when his current attitudes and conduct have changed completely? His condemnation of Sherrod is ethically and logically indefensible: it is a betrayal of her, as a member, an affront to justice and fairness, intellectually dishonest, and, again, cowardly. [UPDATE: After this was written, the N.A.A.C.P. retracted its statement, saying it was “snookered” by Fox and Breitbart. This is disingenuous. As the statement by Ben Jealous quoted above shows, he was aware that Sherrod was telling the story to show the folly of racial bias when he condemned Sherrod’s actions. His organization reacted against Sherrod without giving her a fair hearing for the reasons I have stated, and now, after its rash and cowardly conduct attracted criticism, Jealous is blaming Fox, as if the N.A.A.C.P. had suddenly become a loyal Fox News follower that believed its every word and opinion. The N.A.A.C.P. should have accepted responsibility for its own shoddy and unfair handling of this matter, and its retraction only deepens its disgrace.]

As is the usual patterns with hysterical witch hunts used for cynical and political gain, the race card is now being played indiscriminately, threatening those who started the furor.  Shirley Sherrod, a well-intentioned black woman, was callously used and harmed by the media, her government, and an advocacy group that is supposed to guard her rights. That this occurred under the administration of a President who pledged to bridge the divisiveness of race, ideology and “politics as usual” is discouraging.

That it occurred because of the actions of that President and those who work for him and support him is frightening. I fear this particular ethics train wreck is far from over, and Shirley Sherrod is not its last victim. The crucial question is whether civil discourse, responsible government and public trust will be victims as well.

6 thoughts on “Race, Politics and Cowardice: the Unethical Victimization of Shirley Sherrod

  1. When did logic and ethics ever have anything to do with politics.

    Ive said it before and I will say it again. Bring back dueling and alot of this slanderous bullshit that goes on would end the first time some talking head took a a five oz ball in the brain.

  2. Two things are incomprehensible to me. Tom Vilsack is sticking by his decision, and there’s apparently a White House statement that Obama supports him.

    Could they possibly know something about Sherrod that hasn’t been made public yet? If not they better apologize very quickly for what sure looks like a terrible injustice, and correct it.

  3. Very well written, as usual, Jack. There’s plenty of blamed to go around here. I wish Breitbart and Fox would apologize to their followers; it’d be the big thing to do after misleading so many people and stirring up so much trouble. And she certainly has a valid wrongful-termination suit, if she wishes to pursue such an option. I suspect they will offer her her job back. If I were in her shoes, though, I don’t think I’d want to work for a boss who’s treated me so horribly.

  4. Jack,
    It may be telling of the Obama Administration that they’d rather fire first (“Hey, we already took care of everything. Problem solved. Next scandal, please.”) than investigate what actually happened. Getting rid of the alleged wrong-doers may look good to the media, but it underscores the fact that they have little interest in right or wrong, but only the appearance of right and wrong.

    If Sherrod had been a racist it might have been worth investigating why she’d been hired in the first place, but that could lead to silly questions about job qualifications and the vetting process. Instead they assume that, whatever the problem, firing the guilty party makes it as though the whole fiasco never happened and everyone can move on. This is akin to a doctor slicing off a tumor without bothering to check if it’s cancerous because follow up takes too much time.

    As Charlie Brown would have said: “Good grief!”

    -Neil

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