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Author Keith Boykin probes persistent questions of race


Another victim of injustice

Another victim of injustice
“It’s just awful what they did to that poor woman!”

Another victim of injustice

Post-racial America has not yet arrived. People still have difficulty confronting America’s race problem. Many whites are in denial. When an incident involving a noteworthy African American occurs, white critics are quick to find joint liability. That is what happened in the matter involving the false arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.

Now comes the case of Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia director of Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who was summarily fired from her job. Sherrod was defamed as a black racist by a politically conservative blogger of questionable reputation. The unedited version of her March 27 speech clearly establishes her innocence, but innocence did not protect her from unemployment and efforts to destroy her reputation.

It is understandable that Fox News, the media arm of conservative Republicans, would accept a blog from Andrew Breitbart without question, but why would the Obama administration and NAACP president Benjamin Jealous also do so? Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack fired Sherrod without conducting a hearing or even talking to her, and Jealous endorsed the action.

It is both unjust and illegal to fire a federal employee at Sherrod’s level without an investigation and a hearing. Why did White House lawyers not see the legal problem? Could it be that they were eager to sacrifice a black woman to curry political favor with white racists?

But why was the NAACP also on that side? How could Jealous be “snookered” if he always had access to the video in question that was taken at an NAACP event? Jealous was formerly a journalist, so he understands how to fact-check a story. Why did he feel compelled to respond so quickly to a Tea Party inspired accusation? What kind of strategy is it to permit the opposition to dictate the terms and pace of the confrontation?

The whole incident developed from a speech Sherrod made in Georgia on March 27 at the NAACP 20th annual Freedom Fund Banquet. She told the audience that it was the 45th anniversary of her father’s funeral. He was murdered by a white man in Baker County, Georgia where the family lived, and the grand jury refused to indict anyone, even though there were three witnesses.

That was not her only contact with racial violence. In September of that year, a white mob came to burn a cross at her house, but fortunately armed blacks showed up and drove them off. Sometime later, another relative, Bobby Hall, was lynched by the county sheriff. Other men in her community were also killed by whites.

Understandably, Sherrod had internalized a lot of racial hostility. She told the story of how she confronted this hatred in herself 24 years ago. Although she contemplated not giving a white farmer “the full force” of what she could do, she ultimately saved his farm. Through divine grace she said, “It was revealed to me that it was about poor vs. those who have, and not so much about white and black.” Sherrod realized, “It is all about money.”

Her supporters describe her speech as being about transformation and racial reconciliation, but it is much more than that. She recognizes that the race issue is often a tactical diversion to keep people from focusing on the real problem — the unfair disparity of income. While racial harmony is desirable, Sherrod believes it is of secondary importance to the elimination of poverty. That is what makes her dangerous to conservatives.

The Sherrod incident should have finally impressed blacks with the importance of a strong black press, capable of taking a stand on national issues. The blogosphere alone is clearly inadequate.