The White House and the NAACP are busy tying themselves in knots over the "resignation" of a mid-level black employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Shirley Sherrod. This all came about when a dishonestly edited video of a speech she gave last March at a meeting sponsored by the NAACP in Douglas, Ga., was posted on the Internet by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. The video paints Sherrod, head of Agriculture's rural development office in Georgia, as a racist.
(Breitbart, readers may recall, achieved earlier fame by posting secretly recorded videotapes of employees of the liberal activist group ACORN giving actors posing as a prostitute and her pimp advice on how to set up a "business" funded in part by the federal government.)
Both the national office of the NAACP and Sherrod's bosses in Washington reacted swiftly to Breitbart's latest video -- too swiftly, it now appears. The NAACP demanded she be fired, and USDA Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook called her three times by cell phone while Sherrod was on the road, the third time ordering her to pull off and submit her resignation immediately. The White House demanded it, Sherrod was told.
When the entire video of Sherrod's speech was made available by the NAACP's Georgia chapter, it became clear that when she spoke of an incident in her life, 24 years ago, while employed by a non-profit rural aid group, how completely misleading was the posted two-and-a-half minute clip of her 45-minute speech. It also became clear how irresponsibly the national office of the NAACP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the White House, and even Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, among others in the media, had reacted to it.
In her speech, Sherrod told how years ago she failed to do everything she might have done to help a white farmer facing foreclosure on his land. That experience, she said, opened her eyes to the reality that whites were struggling just as much as blacks, and helping farmers was more about "the poor versus those who have" than about race. (The class bias evident in this part of her speech has escaped general notice thus far.)
The white farmer she referred to, incidentally, held on to his land. His widow, responding to Sherrod's firing, said her family probably wouldn't have kept their farm had it not been for her "leading us in the right direction. I wish she could get her job back because she was good to us, I tell you."
Apologies flew like flocks of startled starlings last week in Washington and elsewhere for the presumed injustice suffered by Ms. Sherrod. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, taking full responsibility for the firing, offered her a "unique opportunity" for new employment in his department. (At this writing, she's considering it.) Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, while refusing to name names, apologized on behalf of the Obama White House. The NAACP, quickly reversing itself, urged that she be re-instated.
Bill O'Reilly gave her a rare on-air apology, admitting that he failed to adequately research the story before commenting upon it. Perhaps now he will. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights voice from the past, said Sherrod's firing was even "more egregious" than the arrest last year of a black Harvard professor by a white policeman in Cambridge. "The politics of fear cannot overwhelm the politics of truth," he said.
What is the "politics of fear" Jackson warns us about? What is behind all this very public breast-beating over the firing of one federal employee? Is black on white racism in danger of being equated with white on black? Is the legitimacy of affirmative action to be questioned again?
On the NAACP's part, its insistence that Sherrod be fired came hard on the heels of its demand that the Tea Party purge its ranks of alleged racist elements, and the White House is fearful of election year fallout from its failure to pursue voter intimidation charges against the New Black Panther Party. It worries further about the racial element implicit in its decision to sue Arizona over that state's attempt to enforce federal immigration law.
The electronic media, intensely competitive over ratings, have a long established tendency to leap before they look. The Sherrod story is one they could hardly ignore, but how difficult and how time-consuming could it have been to secure and review a 45-minute videotape in its entirety?
The curious case of Shirley Sherrod should not require a Sherlock Holmes to unravel, and it does need fuller explanation than it thus far has been given. Her pre-USDA involvement in (and profit from) the notorious Pigford class action discrimination suit by black farmers against the federal government has received virtually no mention in media accounts of her firing. How did she happen to be hired by the USDA in the first place? Were these things considered before offering her a new "unique opportunity" on the federal payroll, or was the offer but a knee-jerk reaction to a public relations gaffe the Obama administration wants to bury quickly lest it spin out of control?
The question would seem to answer itself.