Terence Samuel: Shirley Sherrod and the Politics of Overreaction





I feel bad for Shirley Sherrod. Not just because she lost her job. Not just because it may be that she did not do what she is accused of doing. Not because her only crime may be the very postmodern transgression of being on video and out of context. (Hear her remarks in context here.) I feel bad for Shirley Sherrod because she is only the latest example of how difficult it is for us to get beyond our own racial race. I feel bad for her because I feel bad for all of us. We're stuck. Her firing and the overreaction from the White House, the USDA and the NAACP are just more depressing plot points in the sad story of race in America.

The irony here is so rich that it is almost farcical. After almost 150 years of the USDA being a bastion of racist and discriminatory practices that hurt hundred of thousands of black people, a black USDA employee is accused of not helping a white farmer because he was white, and gets fired. It's a small thing, but that's what racism is: small, stupid and always painful. It appears that Sherrod told this story on herself, but she is bigger and smarter than that and was actually making the opposite point.

Sherrod is not just a victim of current partisan circumstances; she is also a victim of our long, tangled and painful history of race. Her "confession" that she did not apply "the full force of what I could do" to help a white farmer save his farm is exactly the kind of thing that had been happening to black farmers who dealt with the USDA since President Abraham Lincoln established the "people department" in 1862. Only that is not what Sherrod did. For generations, white employees of the USDA, particularly in the South, used the full force of what they could do to make sure that black people were shut out of loan, grant and housing programs that should have been open to everyone....



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