It’s ironic how much time the daughters of Rosa Parks spend under the bus these days. The administration’s willingness not to take a stand on behalf of Shirley Sherrod’s is the latest evidence that when it comes to race we are long on cowardice and short on integrity. This week, Sherrod, an employee at the U.S. Department of Agriculture was pressured to resign her post, after spliced and editd video surfaced of her giving a talk at an NAACP banquet in March. See full video here. In that speech, she recounts an experience working with a poor white farmer and his family in 1986 who were in danger of losing everything. She discusses her perception of the farmer’s racism and condescending attitude toward her, and the fact that this caused her not to give him the “full force of what” she could do. In any case, Sherrod is single-handedly credited, by the family, no less, with saving the family farm.
Our inability to understand what exactly racism is, namely a systematically conferred power to discriminate based upon race, and racial privilege, the unmerited advantages conferred upon the racially powerful continues to obfuscate and obviate any productive conversations about race. These circumstances are nothing new. What is more disturbing is the rush-to-judgment by NAACP president Benjamin Jealous who lambasted Shirley Sherrod in the press, only to have to come back later and recant his statement.
But I agree with Sherrod’s assessment: she was the sacrificial lamb in the feud between the NAACP and the Tea Party. Last week, Jealous vigorously critiqued the continuing racist discourse emanating from the Tea Party’s ranks. Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams retaliated against Jealous by penning and posting an ill-conceived, ill-informed satirical letter from Jealous to President Lincoln renouncing African Americans desire for freedom and calling the organization racist.
Enter Shirley Sherrod, the featured banquet speaker at a local NAACP event in March. During her speech, she recounted her interaction with a racist, but poor farmer, who needed her help. She was honest in admitting that his racial arrogance was off-putting, especially since she was aware of many Black farmers who could use her help. And apparently it is her mere admission of (justified) racial skepticism that constitutes racism in the minds of the American public and her boss Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack.
In the liberal grand narrative of Black racial self-sacrifice that frames the work of the NAACP, she discusses rising above his pettiness and short-sightedness to help him anyway, in part because she had the good sense to know that this was not merely about race, but also about class. She provided historical context for this argument by citing the fact that racial ideology had been used by the elite against indentured servants to undercut a burgeoning labor movement. She concluded from this information that she should “get beyond race” and consider the effects of class, and that Black folks should begin to understand the struggle as one between the haves and have-nots. The all-encompassing nature of racial discourse definitely tends to obscure the ways that class impedes life chances and outcomes. But what Sherrod has been reminded of is the very particular ways in which class will never trump race, of the ways in which Black women are always forced to confront the quagmire of race and class and gender, always together, never separate.
It is unfortunate that the NAACP chose to back its own play for relevance literally on the back of Black woman, but as intraracial politics go, it’s not exactly a new strategy. Rather than using this moment of publicity as an opportunity to actively advance conversations about the connections between race, political desire, and civil discourse, Jealous took the cowardly route and jumped on the bandwagon to unfairly rob this Black woman of her career. From what I can gather, he thought like so many that his willingness to critique the allegedly racially problematic discourse of a Black person would give more integrity to his original claims. Even though he’s apologetic, the same kinds of issues will continue to arise until we get smart in talking about race, and until we refuse to let the Right hijack the conversation with incendiary but vacuous rhetoric. It’s time to stop falling for the racial okey doke; let’s find our ground and stand there.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the problematic gender politics here. Why is it that Joe Biden can make racially problematic comments and become Vice President for the very person that the comments referred to?! Why is it that Harry Reid can use racially problematic discourse and keep his job? Surely, Sherrod’s comments were more useful for a liberal agenda of racial unity than anything Reid and Biden have done or said.
And given the rush-to-judgment of Ben Jealous and Roland Martin, Black male political discourse also does not escape the need for critique. The less well known history of the Civil Rights movement in this country is one in which Black men choose their own fame, and supposedly the rationality and objectivity of their arguments over the bodies and lives of Black women, each and every time. Lest we forget, Black women were not allowed to speak at the March on Washington. They were told that their concerns would be represented by other organizations, and Dorothy Height was given a seat, but no voice, on the platform. Lest we forget, Stokely Carmichael’s famous declaration that the “only position for a woman in the Revolution was prone.” And perhaps we should go back even further to the founding of the NAACP, when the venerable W.E.B. DuBois himself chose to leave Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s name off the original list of the Founding Forty, so that he could include another much less prominent race man. The gender politics of Black anti-racist movements ain’t sexy at all.
Now Shirley Sherrod joins a growing list of Black women who become political casualties of war. Among them are Lani Guinier, Jocelyn Elders, Sistah Souljah, and Desiree Rogers. Each of these Black women were social change agents. Each of them came into contact with a Presidential administration that got credit for its diversity initiatives, while quickly becoming cowardly at the first sign of difficulty. This, however, can be a defining moment for race relations, one in which we put our “full force” in service of honest, responsive, proactive racial discourse and policy, beginning with a reinstatement and apology for Ms. Sherrod.