Shirley Sherrod: Racism and the rush to judgment
Another day, another racism clash between the left and right. This time, it involves an African-American USDA employee who was pushed to resign after a video clip was posted to a conservative Web site that seemed to indict her of discrimination against a white farmer.
But there's more than political fights to examine here. Vilsack's hasty decision to push for Sherrod's resignation, which he is now re-examining, is a reminder of the often overwhelming temptation for leaders to rush to judgment.
As with seemingly all political controversies these days, the Sherrod scandal erupted with a force and ubiquity that only the blogosphere, fueled by the cable media fires, can provide. For those too distracted by Lindsay Lohan's jail time to follow this latest political meme, it went down something like this.
On Monday, Andrew Breitbart posted a clip showing a video of Sherrod, then the rural development officer for the USDA in Georgia, speaking at an N.A.A.C.P. banquet. In recounting an incident that occurred 24 years ago, when she was working for a nonprofit organization, Sherrod recalled that "I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So I didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough."
As the video ricocheted around the web, the NAACP condemned her comments, and Vilsack asked for her resignation. He told CNN that he made the decision in part due to a desire to close the books on a troubled history of civil rights issues at the USDA he had vowed to end.
"When I saw the statements and the context of the statements," Vilsack said, "I determined that it would make it difficult for her to do her job as a rural development director, and it would potentially compromise our capacity to close the chapter on civil rights cases."
But when a full video of the banquet speech surfaced on Tuesday, Sherrod's story about the white farmer sounded a little different. After he had trouble getting help, she said, she recognized that "it's really about those who have versus those who have not. They could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. It made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people." In other words, her story illustrated how she overcame her prejudices.
Sure, Sherrod should have been more careful about her delivery, and more forceful in repudiating her old feelings. And perhaps the history of civil rights troubles at the USDA have been so toxic that, with careful examination, even admissions of biases held decades ago would be grounds for further public explanation.
But there's the rub: There appears to have been little careful examination. In her telling, she was pushed to resign immediately--so immediate, she says, that she was told to pull off to the side of the road and do it because the story was going to be on Glenn Beck that evening. (Sherrod also says the White House was involved in her dismissal; Vilsack has said it wasn't.)
If what she says is true, it's an extraordinary rush to judgment that could tarnish not only the reputation of Vilsack's leadership, but also of the NAACP, which was also quick to condemn Sherrod before later admitting it was "snookered."
We pay our leaders to think clearly. To examine all the facts before they make decisions. To act quickly and decisively, but not so much that fairness goes out the window. In the Sherrod affair, Vilsack--and the NAACP--should have issued statements that they were investigating the matter, and only made a decision after gathering all information possible and considering the full weight of the issues. Instead, the review is coming now, when it may be too late.
July 21, 2010; 10:15 AM ET |
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