The Problem with Racial Remarks: The Case of Shirley Sherrod
Just in: another example of how dangerous it is to talk about race today? On Monday, Shirley Sherrod was compelled to resign from her position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the Georgia State Director of Rural Development because a video clip of her words was whipsawing around the web. Initially posted by Andrew Breitbart (who also circulated the videos that led to the downfall of Acorn), the clip seemed to reveal Sherrod practicing reverse racism by denying a white farmer “the full force of what I could do” in helping him stave off foreclosure on the family farm. Sherrod noted that the white farmer “was talking all the time trying to show me he was superior to me,” so she did only “enough so that when he” went back to USDA officials he would “report that I did try to help him.” But all the while she “was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farm land, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land.” She resolved the matter, initially, by delivering the farmer to a white lawyer, so “that his own kind would take care of him.”
It wasn’t simply the remarks, but the media context in which they appeared that made the story compelling. The recording itself, after all, was almost four months old; and she was telling a story about an event that happened 24 years ago while she was working with a nonprofit organization—not when she was in her current role with the USDA. But the clip was targeted towards a heated public exchange between the NAACP and the Tea Party, one informed by earlier conservative complaints over a Justice Department decision not to pursue a voter intimidation case against some members of the New Black Panthers in Philadelphia. As we know, context is everything, but that’s what is so difficult to grasp in this case: both with the initial remarks, because of the cynical way in which the clip was edited, and also with the anxious-making spotlight in which this discussion about race was unfolding.
Many of the problems that plague and complicate our “national conversation on race” are on display in this story. Obviously, there’s the interested, distorting circulation of the remarks, in the first place. But just as troubling is the anxiety that lead both the Department of Agriculture and the NAACP initially to condemn Sherrod. Yet the deepest problem here is a cultural one—whether conservative or liberal, we are intensely conditioned to look for race primarily in remarks. This is generally how we discuss race in public, typically as the words of some celebrity make the rounds of the blogs and news shows. We purvey remarks as the embodiment of an individual’s racial sensibilities, often asking if they also reflect the breadth and depth of racism in the nation at large. In doing so, we are generally oblivious, first, to the context in which remarks were made and, secondly, to the larger ambit of what the person was saying at the time. This cultural conditioning is justified in many ways—we’re all short on time and little nuggets of speech often can be revealing. But because of this conditioning, in Sherrod’s case, we missed what is so important for people to hear today.
Sherrod, after all, was telling a story of how her thinking about race changed. As her narrative unfolded, Sherrod related how she came to examine her own prejudices and recognized that class mattered more than race, realizing that poverty crosscuts racial differences. These kinds of stories matter a great deal for Americans now as we grapple with the changing meanings and relevance of race. But how are we going to share these if we have to be so on guard against the distortions of selective edits and over-anxious responses? Sherrod’s stories—both the one she was telling back in March and the one that’s unfolding in the media now—are an opportunity for us all to adopt a different stance towards listening for race. The key here is to move beyond parsing particular remarks with the expectations that they will reveal some deep-seated racist sensibility. Instead, we need to be alive to the possibility that people actively think about race, and that, in doing so, their thinking sometimes changes and evolves. That’s what we need to learn from this story.