Anti-racist victim of a racist smear job

Shirley Sherrod's controversial speech certainly was not about hating white farmers--but neither was it about "moving on" from the issues of race and racism.

WHAT HAPPENED to Shirley Sherrod--the former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) official who was slandered by a right-wing provocateur and unceremoniously fired by the Obama administration before it even checked the facts--highlights the explosive nature of the politics of race and racism in the U.S. today.

Columnist: Brian Jones

Brian Jones Brian Jones is a teacher, actor and activist in New York City. He is featured in the new film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, and his commentary and writing has appeared on MSNBC.com, the Huffington Post, GritTV and the International Socialist Review. Jones has also lent his voice to several audiobooks, including Howard Zinn's one-man play Marx in Soho, Wallace Shawn's Essays and Noam Chomsky's Hopes and Prospects.

Sherrod was targeted by an operative of the right-wing political establishment, Andrew Breitbart, as revenge for the NAACP calling out the racism of Tea Party "movement" leaders like Mark Williams.

Breitbart posted a deceptively edited video of Sherrod's speech last March to an NAACP gathering that seemed to show Sherrod saying she refused to provide services to a farmer because he was white. As with several of Breitbart's hit jobs, this "evidence" of "Black racism" was elevated to the national stage by Fox News.

When the unedited version of the speech appeared, however, it showed that Sherrod was making the opposite point. She described how she ultimately went above and beyond to help the white farmer--which the farmer and his wife, Roger and Eloise Spooner, went on national television to confirm.

Shirley Sherrod speaking in March as USDA official in GeorgiaShirley Sherrod speaking in March as USDA official in Georgia

Breitbart seems to have skipped any expression of remorse over the incident. Instead, he's doubled-down on his "white man is the real victim" brand of hysteria. As of this writing, he is featuring several articles on his Web site about--wait for it--how unfair it is that he is being "flogged" in the media.

This old saw--kept alive by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Jeff Sessions and countless right wingers--that white people are victims of racism would be laughable if it weren't taken so seriously, including by Black political leaders who should know better.

Like Barack Obama and the NAACP, for starters. Sherrod was instantly fired from her USDA position--she got the news by cell phone in her car. The civil rights organization immediately condemned Sherrod for her "shameful" behavior without checking on what was said at an event it sponsored.

When the truth came to light, the NAACP issued an apology, and Obama's press secretary said she was owed one, too. For his part, Obama telephoned Sherrod as an act of contrition--but according to her, he didn't actually apologize in that conversation.

It's not that Obama doesn't know how to say "sorry." You may recall that Obama did apologize to the white police officer who arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates (who is African-American) in his own home. Obama said he was sorry for calling the officer's actions "stupid." The officer, who led racial sensitivity trainings for the Cambridge, Mass., police, has never apologized to Gates.

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SO SHIRLEY Sherrod joins a growing list of Black truth-tellers--such as Van Jones and Rev. Jeremiah Wright--who have been thrown under the bus by Obama and his administration.

But with the Sherrod firing, anger reached a boiling point, including among liberal commentators. As Huffington Post writer Miles Mogulescu fumed:

There used to be a time when liberals, progressive and civil rights leaders stood up to right-wing bullies like Andrew Breitbart and Fox News, fighting back, sometimes even risking their lives. No more, it seems. Today these chickensh*t liberals run for cover at the first sign of incoming fire from the rightwing media, abandoning fighters like Van Jones, thousands of poor anonymous ACORN members, and now Shirley Sherrod.

They seem to have forgotten what every school kid learns on the playground: If you don't stand up to bullies, you just encourage their continued bullying.

Historian Clayborne Carson told Joan Walsh of Salon.com:

This is a symbol of something much larger: On civil liberties issues, [Obama has] just lost it. Nobody should ever be dismissed from a position for something they're saying on Fox. As a matter of principle, you don't fire someone without some kind of internal due process and investigation. But this is an administration that can order the assassination of an American citizen. It's disappointing, to say the least.

As for Sherrod, after receiving the phone call from the White House, she struck a diplomatic tone, but her criticisms of Obama weren't too far from the surface. A CNN article quoting Sherrod reported:

[T]oward the end of the conversation, I told him I'd love to have him come to South Georgia," she said, adding that she would "take him around and show him some things. I could definitely bring the point home," said Sherrod.

"The point" we might surmise, that needs "bringing home" is that ordinary people are suffering during this recession, and Black people are suffering disproportionately. Yet Obama insists on keeping his distance from any hint of calls for racial justice. Perhaps we can finally conclude that while this may be a shrewd strategy for Obama's political career, it is counterproductive for those who feel the effects of racism most acutely.

The Salon article quoting Clayborne Carson made another critical point about Shirley Sherrod--her husband is none other than civil rights movement legend Charles Sherrod, a leading member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the organization's first field secretary.

SNCC members were the "shock troops" of the civil rights movement. Again and again, members risked their lives to challenge Jim Crow segregation.

In his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists, the late historian Howard Zinn (another of Breitbart's favorite targets) described the struggle to register Black voters in Terrell County, Ga. SNCC activists endured beatings and arrests. They were shot at and a local church was bombed. What did they have to show for it? As Zinn wrote:

SNCC people registered a handful of voters here. Another handful there. But their most important accomplishment was to break through the frozen crust of the social order in Terrell County, and show to increasing numbers of Negroes there a glimpse of the future.

Sherrod, speaking in Terrell, told men just out of the fields, women just come from white women's kitchens, and children without shoes: "All our lives, we've had to bow and scrape, laugh when there was nothing funny, and scratch our heads, and say "Yes, sir." We want to change that; we want to be men; that's what the power of the vote can do...It's people like you, with faith in God, who are going to change this country. And we'll do it together."

Forty years later, Charles Sherrod and his wife Shirley are still in Georgia, trying to organize people for change. Frankly, if it weren't for people like the Sherrods, Barack Obama could never have become president. The whole point was to end the bowing and scraping--to Fox News or to anyone.

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WHICH BRINGS us to the actual text of Shirley Sherrod's speech.

Needless to say, it's clear by now to everybody but the right-wing fanatics that her message was not about hating white farmers--although, frankly, given that a white farmer murdered her father, that would be an understandable sentiment.

But neither is Sherrod's speech about "moving on" from the racial issue, as some liberal commentators now portray it.

Sherrod admits that she didn't give a white farmer who was facing foreclosure the full benefit of her assistance, but instead passed him off to a white lawyer, assuming that he would be taken care of. When it became obvious that the white lawyer wasn't doing anything to help, Sherrod stepped in herself and went to bat for the farmer.

"Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't," Sherrod told the crowd, which responded with cries of "That's right." Sherrod continued: "You know, and they could be Black, and they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people--those who don't have access the way others have."

Sherrod then took a step back to make a rather radical argument about the origins of racism, who benefits from it and how to fight it:

You know, back in the late 17th and 18th century...there were Black indentured servants and white indentured servants, and they all would work for seven years and get their freedom. And they didn't see any difference in each other--nobody worried about skin color. They married each other. You know, these were poor whites and poor Blacks in the same boat...

[T]hey were slaves, but they were both slaves, and both had their opportunity to work out of the slavery...They lived together. They were just like we would be. And they started looking at what was happening to them and decided we need to do something about it...Well, the people with money, the elite, decided, hey, we need to do something here to divide them.

So that's when they made Black people servants for life. That's when they put laws in place forbidding [whites and Blacks] to marry each other. That's when they created the racism that we know of today. They did it to keep us divided. And...it started working so well, they said, gosh, looks like we've come up on something here that can last generations.

And here we are. Over 400 years later, and it's still working. What we have to do is get that out of our heads. There is no difference between us. The only difference is that the folks with money want to stay in power, and whether it's health care or whatever it is, they'll do what they need to do to keep that power.

There's no way to know for sure what was going through Andrew Breitbart's mind before he edited Sherrod's speech. Why not single out the part where she talks about the "haves and have nots"? Why not slam her as a socialist? Or as a Marxist revolutionary?

But I have a hunch. Breitbart knows that millions of people--including white people--are facing what the white farmer in Sherrod's story faced: foreclosure, economic ruin, unemployment. They have good reason to feel hostility for the "haves." Shirley Sherrod's radical message might appeal to white people--they might see Sherrod as an ally, not an enemy.

Breitbart runs several right-wing Websites: BigGovernment.com, BigJournalism.com, and BigHollywood.com. Notice what's missing? How about "BigBanks.com" or "BigMilitary.com"? (Instead of the latter, Breitbart hosts BigPeace.com.)

Breitbart--and his friends at Fox News--serve an important function for the "haves." They aimed their fire at Shirley Sherrod for a reason.

As she put it, "They did it to keep us divided."