In apparent reaction to recent revelations of blatant Tea Party racism, Fox and other news outlets have seized on a relatively ancient video clip, of a black USDA official admitting that she offered a white farmer less help than she could have. The efforts to make snippets from Shirley Sherrod's speech a national story constitute a vintage white whine -- "Hey, black people can be racist too ya know!"
These efforts by Fox and others to spark a media firestorm exemplify a more general common white tendency -- that of finding, often with a sort of righteous glee, examples of "black racism." In my experience, most white people point out random, very specific and individualized examples of black bigotry far more often than they point out individual or institutional acts of white racism.
Also, the timing of such examples tends to be revealing. White people usually point out "black racism" when they're confronted with examples of white racism. In the current case, in a rather breathless piece entitled "Video Shows USDA Official Saying She Didn't Give 'Full Force' of Help to White Farmer," Fox News operatives reveal in their very first sentence just why Today's Viral Video suddenly interests them:
Days after the NAACP clashed with Tea Party members over allegations of racism, a video has surfaced showing an Agriculture Department official regaling an NAACP audience with a story about how she withheld help to a white farmer facing bankruptcy -- video that now has forced the official to resign.
Hmmm . . . I can't help but wonder, how long has Fox News, or perhaps someone else, been holding onto this story?
I wonder because this common white attention to "black racism" usually functions as a distraction, an effort to deflect blame from white people. In a (by now, I hope, classic) blog post, Abagond labeled this white move the Arab Trader Argument:
The Arab trader argument is my name for an argument white Americans often use to defend the evil they do in the world. It goes like this: if white Americans do something evil and terrible it is all right –- or at least not all that bad –- so long as they can find at least one example from world history of someone else doing the same thing. Thus the Atlantic slave trade was not so bad because Arabs traders sold slaves too! . . .
The thing is utterly morally bankrupt. It is the everyone-does-it argument that we tried when we were eight. Our mothers did not buy it then and it does not work now –- except maybe for the morally blind.
I haven't heard Fox News and other pilot-fish media followers described as "morally blind," but the term does fit the way they're pouncing on this snippet from a speech that was delivered not this week or even this month; former USDA official Shirley Sherrod's delivered this speech in . . . 1986!
What Fox and other blatantly conservative media outlets are willfully blind to in this case, as in other similar ones, is the fuller context of what Sherrod was saying. Again, Fox goes ahead and admits what it's doing in this sense; a line in their story reads,
The point of [Sherrod's] story wasn't entirely clear; only an excerpt of the speech is included in the video clip.
Kudos to CNN, then, for holding back a bit on this common white deflection reflex, at least on one of its programs. In the following "American Morning" segment, anchors John Roberts and Kiran Chetry ask, "Does that video tell the whole story?" They also make the effort of simply asking Sherrod what the whole story is, including the point of her anecdote -- while she thought at the time that race was important, she later realized that her treatment of the white farmer was wrong, and that "the issue is not about race, it's about those who have versus those who do not have."
I'm tempted to say that Fox News has already gotten what it and other conservatives want, which is to get us all talking about race instead of social class -- that the ol' Divide-and-Conquer strategy seems to have worked again, and here I am writing a blog post about race, when even the black person in question is saying that we should really be talking about "those who have versus those who do not have."
And yes, back in the 1980s, as now, small American farmers of all races were suffering from the predations of big-time Agribusiness. However, as Daily Kos dairist Deep Harm writes, "minority farmers had a particularly difficult row to hoe":
In 1920, black farmers in the United States owned 15.6 million acres of land; by 1999 that number had fallen to 2 million, and it's still dropping by 1,000 acres per day. In 1910 there were 926,000 African Americans involved in farming; at the end of the century, just 18,000 remain[ed], and they're going under at the rate of five to six times the rate of white farmers.
Racism and classism both matter, of course, and for non-white people, the former greatly exacerbates the latter.
The end of the YouTube clip that started this faux/Fox controversy contains a recent statement by NAACP Vice President Hilary Shelton, to the effect that his organization does indeed "repudiate racists within our ranks." The implication of juxtaposing Shelton's statement with Sherrod's is a question -- Will the NAACP condemn Sherrod's actions?
As a white person, I don't think it's up to me to judge the race-related actions of non-white people. However, I wish the NAACP hadn't been so quick to come out against Sherrod*:
"Racism is about the abuse of power. Sherrod had 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, president and CEO of the civil rights group. "We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers."
"Her actions were shameful," Jealous continued. "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."
As Sherrod herself said in response, it's "unfortunate that the NAACP would make a statement without even checking to see what happened. This was 24 years ago, and I'm telling a story to try to unite people."
To be clear, I'm not claiming that Sherrod did the right thing in not helping a distressed farmer as much as she could have, just because he was a white man who treated her like an inferior. Instead, I'm pointing out the common white tendency that's demonstrated by many of the white reactions to the snippets from Sherrod's speech: pointing out "black racism" in an effort to deflect attention from white racism.
Is there anything else besides that tendency that could explain why this story is now national news?
*As I noted here, my thanks go out to commenter Queen of the Cynics, for pointing out here the problem with this sentence.
Update: Some are saying that the White House, which may have indirectly told Sherrod to "resign," got punked by Andrew Breitbart, the same sleaze-merchant responsible for the ACORN pimp-and-prostitute fiasco. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says, however, that the decision was his alone.
Many news outlets are now reporting the fuller context of Sherrod's entirely unobjectionable remarks. Sherrod wasn't working yet for the USDA when the episode she describes happened; she made up for not helping the white farmer as much as she could have by befriending him and his wife, Eloise, who described Sherrod as a "good friend" who hasn't been "treated right," and who also "helped us save our farm."
I wonder if the White House will get Shirley Sherrod's job back for her? Guess who, of all people, thinks it should.
How much weirder will this sad, race-baiting parable for our times get?
Update II: This non-story-that's-become-a-huge-story has metastasized into such an extensive series of interviews, apologies, rebuttals, new charges and countercharges that it needs its own blog -- surely one exists? I'd add more links to some of it, but I think they'd be out of date by tomorrow.
So I'll just add a question, in case anyone's still reading here. What do you think of the claim some are making, that Shirley Sherrod is the Rosa Parks of our time?