Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Original sin

Q: One day, the U.S. agriculture secretary forced an official to resign after she was portrayed as treating whites worse than blacks. The next day, Tom Vilsack apologized and offered to rehire Shirley Sherrod, saying he had acted in haste as the result of an out-of-context video. What lessons can be learned here? And when you try to reverse course, are you more likely to look like a flip-flopper, or come out looking good because you admitted a mistake?

The most provocative line in Shirley Sherrod's speech to the Georgia NAACP had nothing to do with the white farmer but was a direct challenge to black families and youth to promote excellence.

After relating her own story of coming home from school to work in the fields each day, Sherrod spoke about the tremendous opportunities that today's black youth have before them. You don't have to face working in the fields, she told them, and "You should be excelling."

She raised the stakes: "Parents, you've got to set some goals for your children. You cannot allow them not to try to become the best they can be. Not studying certainly won't get you there. Y'all must love working in the chickenhouse..."

Not surprisingly, the real forces of racism in this country that twisted and distorted Sherrod's speech beyond recognition did not report on the simple fact that a large part of her speech was an exhortation to black families and children to do better, to restore the values of helping each other, to build more effective communities, to excel in school in order to become successful professionals.

She said, "Change has to start with us. Somehow we've got to make the other side of town work with us. We've got to make our communities what they need to be and our young people are not picking up ... Y'all have to step up to the plate. You've got to step up to the plate. You are capable of being very, very smart people. You are capable of being those doctors and lawyers. You are capable of running your own business."

She went on to express dismay in the fact that of all the grants she distributed to farmers in Georgia, not one grant went to a black farmer because, perhaps as a result of the legacy of slavery and generations of oppression in the fields, African Americans see "agriculture" as a "bad word" and have retreated from the agricultural professions.

Racism is the original American Sin, and racism is certainly alive and well and rampant in some parts of this country still. But Sherrod's speech, itself, was not racist in the least. Anyone who takes the time to view the video in its entirety (available on the NAACP website at www.naacp.org) will see that her talk is a deeply moving story about the struggle to grow beyond the past, told in the rich vernacular of an African American woman who grew up in the murderously oppressive conditions of the post-Civil War rural South.

The man who first broke the "news" of the Sherrod speech is a well-known right-wing muckraker --- Andrew Breitbart, a child of one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America (Brentwood, California, just outside of Los Angeles, home of movie stars and moguls), has no business sitting in judgment on Shirley Sherrod. His arrogance is ignorant, breathtaking and destructive.

Breitbart appears to have skipped the Ethics course in college, and obviously cut a lot of literature classes as well. Otherwise, he surely would have (a) viewed the entire video before opining, and (b) recognized the robust literary traditions shaping Sherrod's voice. Through Sherrod's words we hear not only African American literary influences ranging from Zora Neale Hurston to Toni Morrison, but the shattering cries of poverty and oppression echoing through the Irish lament of Angela's Ashes or the misery of Steinbeck's Joad family journey through the dusty plains.

Sherrod's tale about the white farmer occurred in the context of her growth out of profound anger and sorrow after her father was murdered by a white man who was never indicted for the murder. The fact that Sherrod openly and honestly admits her skepticism when the white farmer first came to her for help is a refreshing statement about the latent prejudices we all harbor. Has Bill O'Reilly never crossed the street or clutched his wallet at the sight of a young black man walking toward him? The very accusations of racism from the conservative talking heads reveal the racism that courses through the veins of American life.

Sherrod told the story to illustrate her realization that the real oppression in American life is not about race but about social class, rich versus poor, have versus have not. No less a moral voice and conservative hero than Pope John Paul II spoke frequently about the scandal of poverty in modern life, about the chasms widening between rich and poor in this world, about the moral imperative for rich nations like the United States to do more to close the gap. The 1986 statement "Economic Justice for All" of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops remains one of the most eloquent calls for economic justice in the literature.

The knee-jerk reaction of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in firing Sherrod on the basis of the snippet of the speech that Breitbart trumpeted was cowardly. One of the biggest problems the Obama administration faces right now is the rampant fear of planting stakes in the ground on clear moral issues. In trying to avoid controversy over major moral problems like race and justice, the administration is shirking its clear duty to take an indisputable leadership position.

Vilsack reversed his firing, Obama called Sherrod to apologize, and even Breitbart and O'Reilly muttered some words. They're like kids in the schoolyard called to task by the nuns. Yeah, sorry... until next time! The problem is not flip-flopping, the problem is the complete absence of concern for anything other than poll numbers and headlines.

Sherrod's firing was not a "mistake." It was a consequence of men --- let's add sexism to this brutal stew --- who care more about themselves than the people affected by their actions. Their failure to listen to the voice of the woman whose story was deeply moving and a compelling morality tale for our time was an egregious breach of responsibility among all concerned.

By Patricia McGuire  |  July 26, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success and controversy Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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What is there to correct? If this was a white person, they would be public pariah #1 and no one would dare stand up for them, much less offer them their job back.

Realizing your mistake does not absolve you of all consequences. Until we drop the double standards, racial discord will prevail. Sadly, racial and class discord are political weapons that the ruling entities are not likely to willingly concede.

Establishing creditor and debtor races continues, and these are the supposedly enlightened among us.

Posted by: burbworks | July 28, 2010 11:55 AM
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I must be missing something. The Obama administration made a mistake (they were not the only ones, but were the ones who counted. They have offered Sherrod a job, the President called her and she indicated she was happy with the call ....but obviously not happy that he did not accept her invitation to visit her in Georgia. The last I read of her, she still had not accepted the restoration of employment. I think the story is over. The ball is in Sherrod's hands. If she wants the job, she should take it. If she does not want the job, she should say so. There are many more important things facing the president and our country. Sherrod has had her 15 minutes of fame but is apparently not ready to return to her previously level of obscurity.

Posted by: Thependulumswings | July 26, 2010 9:30 PM
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Besides offering Sherrod her job back, Vilsack should offer to resign, so that she would not have to work in the same space with him again.

Posted by: dotellen | July 26, 2010 8:18 PM
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