By Bob Herbert

The Shirley Sherrod story tells us so much about ourselves, and none of it is pretty. The most obvious and shameful fact is that the Obama administration, which runs from race issues the way thoroughbreds bolt from the starting gate, did not offer this woman anything resembling fair or respectful treatment before firing and publicly humiliating her.

Moving with the swiftness of fanatics on a hanging jury, big shots in the administration and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News came to exactly the same conclusion: Shirley Sherrod had to go — immediately! No time for facts. No time for justice.

What we have here is power run amok. Ms. Sherrod was not even called into an office to be fired face to face. She got the shocking news in her car. “They called me twice,” she told The Associated Press. “The last time, they asked me to pull over to the side of the road and submit my resignation on my BlackBerry, and that’s what I did.”

This woman was thrown to the wolves without even the courtesy of a conversation. Her side of the story? The truth? The administration wasn’t interested.

And the blame for that falls squarely on the people at the very top in the White House. Why didn’t President Obama or Vice President Joe Biden or Rahm (call me Rahmbo) Emanuel, or somebody somewhere in the upper echelon say, “Hey, what the heck are you doing? You can’t fire a person without hearing her side of the story. This is not the Kremlin. Are you nuts?”

And then, of course, there’s the media, and not just the wing nuts at Fox and the crazies in the right-wing blogosphere. A large segment of the mainstream crowd stampeded to condemn this woman solely on the basis of a grainy video clip, just two-and-a-half minutes long, that was trumpeted by a source whose track record should have set alarm bells ringing in the head of any responsible journalist.

This sorry episode shows the extent to which we’ve lost sight of the most basic elements of fair play, responsible reporting and common decency in this society. And we’ve turned the race issue entirely on its head. While racial discrimination is overwhelmingly directed against black people in the U.S., much of the nation and the media are poised to go berserk over the most specious allegations of racism against whites. Even the N.A.A.C.P. rushed to condemn Ms. Sherrod, calling her actions “shameful,” without bothering to seek out the facts — which, incredibly, had unfolded at an N.A.A.C.P. event!

Later, after officials at the organization had found and released a tape of Ms. Sherrod’s entire 45-minute speech, the group’s president, Ben Jealous, apologized and said the N.A.A.C.P. had been “snookered.”

Black people are in a terrible condition right now — economically, socially, educationally and otherwise — and there is no effective champion fighting for their interests. Mr. Jealous and the new edition of the N.A.A.C.P. have shown in this episode that they are not ready for prime time, and President Obama seems reluctant to even utter the word black. Or poor, for that matter.

We hear so much about the middle class, and it’s true that the middle class has suffered in this terrible recession. There’s a middle-class task force in the White House led by the vice president. But the people suffering most in this long economic tailspin are the poor and the black, and you don’t hear much about that.

Which brings us to the most important part of the Shirley Sherrod story. The point that Ms. Sherrod was making as she talked in her speech about the white farmer who had come to her for help was that we are all being sold a tragic bill of goods by the powerful forces that insist on pitting blacks, whites and other ethnic groups against one another.

Ms. Sherrod came to the realization, as she witnessed the plight of poverty-stricken white farmers in the South more than two decades ago, that the essential issue in this country “is really about those who have versus those who don’t.”

She explained how the wealthier classes have benefited from whites and blacks constantly being at each other’s throats, and how rampant racism has insidiously kept so many struggling whites from recognizing those many things they and their families have in common with economically struggling blacks, Hispanics and so on.

“It’s sad that we don’t have a roomful of whites and blacks here tonight,” she said, “because we have to overcome the divisions that we have.”

There is no way we’ll overcome those divisions if people who should know better keep bowing before and kowtowing to the toxic agenda of those on the right whose overriding goal is to foment hostility and hate.