Thursday, July 22, 2010

America Confounds the Cynics

Washington has learned: when somebody cries "RACISM" in a crowded room, the panic won't end until someone's head rolls. Washington has learned: make someone else's head roll today and it won't be your head tomorrow. So when Andrew Breitbart posted video clips of a USDA employee making racially inflammatory remarks, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack moved with speed and got Shirley Sherrod to resign under pressure the same day.
"You know, the first time I was faced with helping a white farmer save his farm. He took a long time talking but he was trying to show me he was superior to me. I know what he was doing. But he had come to me for help. What he didn't know, while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him. I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland. And here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land, so I didn't give him the full force of what I could do... I figured if I take him to [a white lawyer], that his own kind would take care of him."
What has followed is ready-made for the Lifetime channel. Turns out, Breitbart's video was incomplete, and her March speech to the NAACP was about overcoming - not exacerbating - racial division. Now Vilsack, who tried to save his own neck from a cable-TV scaffolding, looks foolish. The NAACP, who condemned Sherrod without even fact-checking their own event, looks more foolish. And foolish would be a compliment to Andrew Breitbart in this case.

But outside of Washington, a funny thing happened: in a story of smears, lies, and coercion, a peculiar humanity showed through.
"Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who haven't. They could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to help poor people - those who don't have access the way others have."
With her life now under scrutiny, Shirley Sherrod has been lauded as a case study in overcoming adversity with grace. Her father was shot in the back and killed by a white man when she was 17. A white grand jury refused to bring charges. White USDA officials were skeptical of her agricultural co-operative and denied them loans during a drought.

But this time was different. Roger Spooner, the white farmer who Sherrod said "acted superior" when seeking help, came forward, along with his wife. The wife's live chat on WaPo today (usually a tedious medium) is endearingly folksy:
"That was just about two weeks before they were gonna sell our farm up at the courthouse. He got the Chapter 11 to stop it and Shirley Sherrod arranged it all and got it going. We would have lost everyting if it hadn't been for Shirley.
The farmers grew up, they said, as friends with blacks. In 1986, when Sherrod offered them a black lawyer in their town or a white lawyer 45 minutes away, they chose the local man (he was too busy, so they eventually switched). And when an acquaintance from 24 years ago was being tarred and feathered, the white farmers drove to Atlanta to set the story straight.
So we listened and me and Roger looked at each other and we said that she helped us when we really needed help and we were gonna try to help her.
Shirley saw White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs apologize to her on TV. She got a new job offer from Tom Vilsack to be high up in USDA working on civil rights issues. And she was asked whether she wanted an apology from President Obama. No, she said, but she would like to talk to him.
"[Obama]'s not someone who has experienced some of the things I've experienced through life being a person of color. He might need to hear some of what I could say to him. I don't know whether that would guide him in the way that he deals with others like me, but I'd at least like to have the opportunity to talk to him about it."
And the movie has a happy ending.
"Shirley called me today and told me she talked to the president. She wanted to come over tomorrow but we're gonna be busy; Roger's got to go to the doctor and then Saturday we've got funeral. Sunday she's gonna call me we'll decide then when we can get together. We didn't talk a long time. She said I know you're like me and we're both tired. She said it would be good to sleep in own tonight.
Washington, you've been confounded by America.

1 comment:

Carol L. Douglas said...

Great post.