The Lynching of Shirley Sherrod
The human price of indiscriminate politics.
We're lucky the truth survived. Lucky that Spooner, at 87, is alive to tell the tale. Lucky that somebody kept a full recording of the speech.
What has Breitbart learned from this fiasco? Nothing. Yesterday, he brushed off the new evidence, telling the New York Times, "They're trying to make this about me and Shirley Sherrod. This is about the NAACP." To him, the truth about Sherrod is beside the point. What's important is the political fight. BigGovernment.com now depicts Sherrod as a "sacrificial lamb" butchered by the NAACP and the Obama administration to hide their racism.
Unembarrassed by the exposure of his politically edited video, Breitbart continues to caricature Sherrod. Last night, he posted an excerpt in which she talks sadly about black farmers selling their land. She tells the audience that race is no predictor of virtue, noting that she has worked with honest whites and exploitative blacks. Breitbart's headline ignores these inconvenient reflections. It shouts: "Shirley Sherrod Laments Land Being Sold to White Man."
Jealous, the NAACP president, thinks the lesson stops here. He says Fox News and "Tea Party Activist" Breitbart "snookered" him into denouncing Sherrod. Using Sherrod's defamation as a political springboard, he accuses "leaders in the Tea Party movement like Dick Armey and Sarah Palin" of failing to address the movement's bigotry. He concludes: "Next time we are confronted by a racial controversy broken by Fox News or their allies in the Tea Party like Mr. Breitbart, we will consider the source and be more deliberate in responding."
No, Mr. Jealous. This isn't about Sarah Palin or Fox News. Your problem isn't that you failed to consider the source. It's that you failed to consider the evidence. You didn't talk to Sherrod or Spooner. You didn't watch the full video, to which your organization had access. The facts, not the source, are what matter. You were too caught up in your feud with the Tea Party to face that lesson squarely. You still are. You were too preoccupied with sending a message about the NAACP's "zero tolerance policy against racial discrimination" to give a fellow human being a fair hearing.
The danger now is that in the backlash against Breitbart, we'll repeat his mistake. We'll brush aside the original clip of Sherrod, ignoring what we don't want to see. In her speech, there's a frank, painful story of racism and enlightenment. A woman who failed to take a white man's peril seriously because she equated whiteness with privilege discovered that "his own kind" would not, in fact, take care of him. She began to see power in terms of money, not race. She learned to judge farmers and lawyers not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Her sins are hardly original. Many others before her, including the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, learned the same lessons. Many others will follow. All of us struggle with tribalism. If it isn't the tribalism of black and white, it's the tribalism of left and right. We see the group and misjudge the individual. It's OK to admit this. It's OK to acknowledge your biases, even when they're sexual or racial. They don't make you a monster. They just make you a human being who wants to be better, like Shirley Sherrod and the rest of us. All God's children have wings.
On Monday, Sherrod was driving across Georgia when she got a phone call from a USDA official instructing her to resign. According to Sherrod, the official's stated reason was that "you're going to be on 'Glenn Beck' tonight." But Beck didn't follow the script. On his TV show, he called the video excerpt fishy and said of Sherrod, "If she is relating a story from 1986 to make a point about how her racial perceptions have changed, this woman deserves her job back."
That's the funny thing about people. They'll surprise you.
Video: Andrew Breitbart's Freakouts Caught on Tape
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Andrew Breitbart by Win McNamee/Getty Images. Photograph of Ben Jealous by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.