Thursday, July 22, 2010

A teachable moment on race -- July 22, 2010 column


Vilified, then vindicated, Shirley Sherrod did what Americans do in such circumstances. She made the rounds of TV and cable talk shows.

Unlike most people on the talk circuit, however, Sherrod actually had something to say – and teach.

Within about 24 hours, she had been accused of racism and fired from her Agriculture Department job, then bathed in apologies and offered a new job. Sherrod, 62, who is black, wanted to talk to President Obama and clue him in:

“He’s not someone who has experienced some of the things I have experienced through my life, being a person of color. He might need to hear some of what I could say to him,” she said on ABC.

“I don’t know if that would guide him in dealing with others like me…” she said. The implication, was that this embarrassing episode could be a teachable moment for the president.

Obama did call Sherrod Thursday, and he apologized. They talked for all of seven minutes.

If there’s one thing people didn’t expect in electing the first black president, it’s that he would need tips on understanding the African-American experience. But there’s a sense he is removed from ordinary experience.

He “hasn’t lived the kind of life I’ve lived,” Sherrod said on CNN. “He’s part African American … (but) he really, where the rubber meets the road, needs to understand what life is really like.”

Obama was born in Honolulu and grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii. His age – he turns 49 Aug. 4 -- and his Ivy League education also set him apart from many who lived through the civil rights era.

So far, hopes that he would usher in a post-racial era haven’t materialized. Speeches aside, he has been less than sure-footed on race.

Last summer, Obama stumbled when his friend and black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested – “stupidly,” the president said -- by a white Cambridge, Mass., police officer. A “beer summit” photo op at the White House followed.

This week, the administration jumped to conclusions and fired Sherrod after viewing a 2-minute video clip from a 43-minute speech Sherrod gave in March to an NAACP group in Georgia. The clip, posted on the Web by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, seemed to show Sherrod describing a time in the 1980s when, working for a non-profit agency, she had done less than she could to help a white farmer facing foreclosure.

No one at the NAACP, the White House or Agriculture bothered to watch Sherrod’s entire remarks before concluding she was a racist and had to go. The news media and bloggers ran to keep up with events without checking into the facts.

Spurred by fear that Fox News host Glenn Beck would take up the story, the administration pushed out Sherrod, the first black director of federal rural development efforts in Georgia.

Her speech in its entirety shows a woman whose personal story of forgiveness and redemption is interwoven with the nation’s civil rights struggle. Growing up on a farm in Georgia in the 1960s, Sherrod dreamt of leaving the fields and heading north.

Then, in June 1965, when she was 17, a white man murdered her father, shooting him in the back in a dispute over cows. Her mother was seven months pregnant with her sixth child. Sherrod said she vowed that night to stay in the South and devote her life to working for social change.

Her father’s death went unpunished. Despite three witnesses, the Grand Jury refused to indict anyone. White men burned a cross on the family’s lawn, Sherrod said.

After college, she began helping black Georgia farmers keep their land. She discovered after helping a white man save his farm that the true fight was not between blacks and whites but between haves and have nots. The farmer, Roger Spooner, now in his 80s, is still grateful.

“It’s not just about black people; it’s about poor people,” she said in the speech. “I’ve come to realize we have to work together.”

With the full content of the speech known, the NAACP said it had been “snookered” by the reports, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized. Vilsack offered Sherrod a job in race relations, but she was skeptical. She said she doesn’t want to be the one person charged with cleaning up discrimination at USDA.

But she could use her moment to teach the president about race.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


  1. Ms. Mercer captures the essence of the Sherrod story and presents it in a clear and interesting manner. Her point about the teachable moment for the president is right on. Though both the president and Sherrod are black (in a sense), the difference in their racial life experiences is really remarkable. Obama has much to learn from Sherrod. A longer meeting between the two would benefit the president immensely.

    Good work, Ms. Mercer - you give your reader insights that are lareely missed by the regular media. Thank you. Your contribution needs to be widely disseminated.

  2. Excellent work, Ms. Mercer. Sherrod ahould have her teachable moment with President Obama.