Redemption, not Racism at the USDA

The events of the past week or so have come so fast that they’ve made my head spin and my heart despair. We are at a place in this country on the topic of race that I never envisioned for the second decade of the 21st century, and we need to pull back from the brink before what happened to Ms. Sherrod of the U.S. Department of Agriculture happens to others on both sides of the racial divide.

In brief, here’s what occurred. Famous conservative muckraker Andrew Brietbart posted a couple of videos on his website, Big Government, that showed Ms. Sherrod speaking at an NAACP awards dinner. She was describing to the audience how she struggled to help a white farmer who had come to her seeking assistance because he was about to lose his farm. She spoke of how she helped him just enough to where he would report back to whoever referred him that she had done her job. She also spoke of sending him to a white attorney, “one of his own kind”, for further help.

She went on to say that the experience taught her the issues that confronted her weren’t black and white, but “haves” and “have nots”. But the damage from her earlier statements had been done. Once the videos went public, all anyone saw – and I include myself in that number – was a black government official denying service to a white person based solely on his race. That couldn’t be easily explained away.

The secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, contacted Ms. Sherrod and asked her to submit her resignation via her Blackberry – somewhat unorthodox and demeaning, in my view, but they were apparently trying to demonstrate their swiftness in dealing with racism in their ranks. Shortly thereafter, her resignation was announced, and to the casual observer, justice had been served – or had it?

After the fact, previously undisclosed information began creeping into the narrative, changing the complexion of what had occurred:

1) The incident she described took place two decades ago, before she became a government employee.

2) She was describing the incident as indicative of how she felt then versus how she feels today.

3) The white farmer and his wife immediately came to her defense. They are apparently very fond of her, and she of them. They credited her with saving their farm, and regret that she lost her job.

I spoke to a reporter this evening as the “conservative” voice on this issue and, while I’m not sure what she expected, this is what I told her.

This was a rush to judgment, exacerbated by the racial tensions that have broken out since the expose on the Justice Department’s apparent refusal to pursue the voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party, and the NAACP’s resolution condemning the racist elements of the Tea Party movement and the leadership’s “continued tolerance” of them. She should have been given a chance to tell her story, but the White House was so concerned about how this would play out in the media that they acted before giving her an opportunity to explain herself.

Should she have told the story at all? That’s a matter of opinion. Some say it would have been more prudent of her to save it for her memoirs. In this era of camera and video equipped cell phones and easily concealable recording devices, anything we say or do in public can and will be used against us. People from previous generations haven’t adapted to that reality, and younger people show no discretion and don’t seem to care unless and until they are denied opportunities because of it.

Should the journalists who released the videos been more responsible? Depending on which side of the ideological divide you sit, you may have a different answer for that question. The videos released by Breitbart didn’t address the time frame in which the incident she was describing occurred; was that fact in the video at all? If it was, then someone made a conscious decision to omit that information. Whether they thought it was irrelevant to the topic, or left it out with malice and forethought, leaving that out was wrong.

In the very same news cycle, a series of videos released by a leftist organization to prove the Tea Party is a racist movement were found to have been edited to leave out critical information, like the Tea Party organizers forcing a racist to leave the rally, or another racist whose rants apparently occurred several years before the Tea Party movement even existed. Whether they thought this information was irrelevant to the topic, or left it out with malice and forethought, leaving it out was wrong.

Today’s news seems to be more about speed than accuracy, and for every slip-up, there’s a coup that will feed a reporter’s family steak and lobster for months. Think of the John Edwards story; the National Enquirer was fastest and first with the news of his infidelity and the “love child” that resulted from the affair. Once the story was verified, they looked like crack investigative journalists, while the mainstream media looked timid at best, and biased at worst. The pressure to put “hot” stories out there without fully vetting them is incredible, and it puts a premium on us as consumers of information to ask questions and reserve judgment until all the relevant information is in.

Here’s my conclusion. Both the White House and the NAACP were on a hair trigger regarding the race issue because it is a flash point in the current news cycle. They acted against Ms. Sherrod based on incomplete information, and did so out of fear. The White House, frankly, isn’t particularly comfortable with the issue of race, as I spell out in my upcoming book, “Sellout: Musings from Uncle Tom’s Porch”:

My observation is that President Obama is a reluctant warrior and a bit of an opportunist when it comes to the topic of race. He is clearly uncomfortable casting issues in racial terms and there are only three conditions under which I’ve seen him invoke race.

He uses the issue of race when he needs to generate a large minority voter turnout. Witness his 2010 midterm elections video appeal to “young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and women who powered our victory in 2008 [to] stand together once again.

The other time he discusses race is when he’s backed into a corner, as he was during the 2008 campaign when the continuing controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary comments from the pulpit forced his hand.

In response, Obama delivered his famous campaign speech in Philadelphia on race in America. Although not explicitly stated, he and his campaign staff clearly hoped all the race talk would die down after he’d addressed it.

Finally, race becomes a hands-on topic for him when a friend is involved, as with his condemnation of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police department for their arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his own home.

Even in that incident, he quickly backed off his comment that the police acted “stupidly.” He hastily arranged a beer summit at the White House between himself, Vice President Biden, Professor Gates and James Crowley, the Cambridge police officer who had arrested Gates for disorderly conduct.

As for the NAACP, the heat in the kitchen generated by their Tea Party resolution was already on high, and they couldn’t afford another public relations disaster, especially one that occurred at one of their own awards dinners. As soon as the White House reacted, they did, too.

Now the White House is remaining silent on the issue, hoping it will die down, and the NAACP says it was duped by the conservative media. There are no winners in this situation.

The irony for me personally is that, when I set out ten months ago to write a book about race in America from the perspective of a Christian conservative black man, I never envisioned the racial climate in this country to be what it is today. That doesn’t make me prescient, but it’s a reminder to me of God’s timing. We’ll see if the manner in which I address this sensitive topic fans or retards the flames.

And so I turn to Ms. Sherrod as my final word. The story she told the audience that night was, in my opinion, a story of sin, repentance and redemption. It is a Christian story, and one that deserves more applause than condemnation. I don’t know if she’ll get her job back, but as far as I’m concerned, she may have been a racist two decades ago, but she is redeemed today, and she’s a sister in Christ. That’s good enough for me, and I’m praying for her.