The human price of indiscriminate politics.

How you look at things.
July 21 2010 7:38 PM

The Lynching of Shirley Sherrod

The human price of indiscriminate politics.

Andrew Breitbart, left, and Ben Jealous. Click image to expand.
Andrew Breitbart, left, and Ben Jealous

Twenty-four years ago, Shirley Sherrod helped Roger Spooner save his farm. She was black, and he was white, but they were more than that. They were two people working together to keep a South Georgia family on its land.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

This week, they were flattened into a political cartoon. To score points in a fight between the Tea Party and the NAACP over which side is "racist," Sherrod and Spooner were caricatured: she as a black bigot, he as a white dupe. The nuances of their story were erased.

Now the truth of what happened between them has overtaken the caricature, and they're being cast aside again. The right and left are back at one another's throats, each side depicting the ruckus over Sherrod as proof of the other's bigotry and dishonesty. We still don't get it. This isn't about your side or mine. It's about the people we trample while fighting. It's about the common weakness that makes us susceptible not just to racism but to political polarization: our propensity to see one another as members of groups rather than as individuals.

Four months ago, at an NAACP dinner, Sherrod told the story of how she met Spooner. It was 1986. She was working for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. He was a farmer seeking help against foreclosure. "He was trying to show me he was superior to me," Sherrod told the NAACP audience. "I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farm land, and here I was, faced with having to help a white person save their land. So I didn't give him the full force of what I could do." She told the audience that she "took him to a white lawyer" because "I figured if I'd take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him."

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On Monday, conservative activist Andrew Breitbart posted Sherrod's remarks on his Web site, BigGovernment.com. He introduced a two-minute video excerpt of her speech with these words: "Context is everything."

To Breitbart, the relevant context was the summer political fight between the Tea Party and the NAACP. He had known about the Sherrod video since March but was posting it now to embarrass the NAACP. He headlined his item "The NAACP Awards Racism," and he used the video to launch a diatribe against Marxism, socialism, and "Obama's left-wing agenda." To implicate Obama, he framed Sherrod's speech as proof that "her federal duties are managed through the prism of race and class distinctions." The video's introductory text made the accusation explicit: Sherrod "admits that in her federally appointed position" as the USDA's Georgia director of rural development, "she discriminates against people due to their race."

The video never supported the accusation. It dealt with events 23 years before Sherrod's federal appointment. Nevertheless, it destroyed her. It was replayed everywhere. The NAACP denounced her. The USDA forced her to resign. Nobody asked her to explain herself or looked at her job performance to see whether she had practiced discrimination. The video was enough. The NAACP, having secured the right of all people to sit at the front of the bus, threw Sherrod under it. In his statement, NAACP President Ben Jealous claimed "she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done" to Spooner.

But there were many indications that she had righted her wrong. The evidence was in the memories of Spooner and his wife and in the full video of Sherrod's speech, which the NAACP possessed but hadn't bothered to consult. The Spooners began to correct the record, explaining how Sherrod had followed up and saved their farm. Tuesday evening, the NAACP posted the full video of her speech, demonstrating that after Breitbart's excerpt ended, Sherrod had gone on to describe what she did for Spooner when his white lawyer failed to help:

I spent time there in my office calling everybody I could think so to try to see—help me find the lawyer who would handle this. … Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't. You know—and they could be black, and they could be white. They could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people. … God helped me to see that it's not just about black people. It's about poor people. … I've come to realize that we have to work together. … We have to get to the point, as Toni Morrison said, [where] race exists, but it doesn't matter.

These wise and moving words had been excised from the original clip. They gave the real context of Sherrod's remarks—what had happened 24 years ago between her and Spooner and what she had learned from it—not the fake political context in which, to Breitbart, she was just another weapon.

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

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