Shirley Sherrod and the Racism Arms Race
6:00 PM, Jul 21, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
I wrote yesterday that cries of racism without just cause and serious proof are damaging to the falsely accused, the political process, race relations, and those who suffer from actual racism. I was talking mostly about the left's cynical and frequent use of "racism" accusations to marginalize political opponents at the time, but the same applies to unfounded accusations of racism from Glenn Beck and Andrew Breitbart.
The solution to the left's frequent playing of the race card is not for the right to start a racism accusation arms race. We don't need more accusations flying around with flimsy evidence. We need far more consideration before flinging them, on all sides.
Racism is among the worst things one can be accused of in American society, and one should require solid proof before levying it—against white conservative activists or black USDA employees. In the case of Shirley Sherrod, it's pretty clear neither Breitbart nor the USDA nor the NAACP nor the White House had it.
Breitbart should have done due diligence on the video before posting it, and failing that, Sherrod's employer and the NAACP should have before condemning her. I imagine the NAACP felt the need to act quickly because it had so recently accused the Tea Party of racism in a rather broad-brush, high-profile fashion. The urgency for responding to alleged racism in their own ranks, therefore, became more of an urgent p.r. matter, and they overreacted. Thus, throwing around their own unfair accusations of racism may have begotten the NAACP's part in another unfair accusation of racism against Sherrod.
I'm surprised by how the White House reacted. Liberals are dismayed, and ranting at a White House they think has long been too quick to react to storylines that come from Fox News and Breitbart. If she had not been fired, I imagine the full video would have come out and been covered fairly quickly, correcting the error without the whole circus. That's not an excuse for the out-of-context video being aired in the first place; just an observation that the White House attempt to stop the story before it snowballed ended up, well, snowballing the whole thing.
Robert Gibbs told the White House press corps today that Sherrod deserves and will get an apology from USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack. He also offered one on behalf of the entire administration for acting "before there we had a complete set of facts." He blamed our "frenzied culture" and a 24-hour news cycle for making the White House stumble into responding before all the facts are in. He called the incident a "teachable moment," but declined to say that Obama would be teaching us anything about it. He also said, to his knowledge, the White House had no part in the firing of Sherrod—a claim which her version of events disputes.
If we learn anything in this "teachable moment" it should be that the White House and activists on both sides are playing with heavy artillery when they deal with accusations of racism. Conservatives get frustrated that Tea Party racism is trumped up, often with little to no proof, while racist comments by liberals are pretty quickly forgiven and forgotten, but that doesn't mean conservatives should trump up their own charges. The burden of proof should be very high for accusers on both sides, and no one is served well by so many being so quick on the trigger.
(Don't look now, but here we go again.)