Shirley Sherrod’s victory: A teachable moment on talking race

Featured, Politics, Shirley Sherrod — By Dr.Brittney on July 23, 2010 at 05:32

Shirley Sherrod should retire from the USDA, get her book deal, and tell her story. I certainly would not want to work for a group of people that were so quick to hang me out to dry. But seriously, Ms. Sherrod should pick the options that are best for her, because one of the many victories in this whole sordid situation is that she is now a Black woman with options.

Since the news of Andrew Breitbart’s sloppy and opportunistic editorial hatchet job on Sherrod’s career became apparent three days ago, everyone’s been tossing around the term, “teachable moment.” I’ve heard it repeatedly throughout this ordeal: “this is a teachable moment on race, on media, on government.” While many see the “teachable moments” here as being about taking more care and time when handling sensitive information, and about the willingness of the most extreme members of the right to jettison integrity and basic truthfulness for political capital, there is something much more fundamental at stake. That is, we need to stop trying to be anti-racial and focus on being anti-racist. There is a critical difference between the two.

In Shirley Sherrod’s speech, she talked about the emergence of white supremacist ideology as a way to divide and conquer similarly positioned poor black and white indentured servants. That information speaks to a more fundamental truth, namely the ways in which the ideology of racism and white supremacy is built into the fundamental fabric of these United States. We will not get beyond “race” then until we deal with racism itself.

Folks however keep putting the cart before the horse. Dealing with racism is a much more difficult proposition than dealing with race. Confronting racism means confronting privilege. It means confronting the reality of power, and the possibility of a redistribution of resources. In a society in which white privilege grants most white folks the right to believe wholeheartedly in the myth of meritocracy, the idea that they have everything they have solely based on their own merit and hardwork, rather than having a huge help from centuries of racial privilege, dealing with racism is a veritable nightmare. So rather than do that, we keep talking about “race.”

Anytime someone brings up “race” they are liable to be called racist. Surely, as Americans, we have the capacity for deeper thinking than that.

And herein lies my deep skepticism of this rhetoric of racial transcendence and transformation that has played out in the course of this story. Everyone kept talking about how Ms. Sherrod was almost going to be racist and discriminatory but then had a change of heart. No!!! This is a woman who’s father was killed by a white farmer; a woman who had a cousin to be lynched by the town sheriff; a woman whose family were personally the victims of discrimination at the hands of the USDA. Given that history, surely she would be offended by a condescending white farmer who needed her help, but also needed to keep his own personal sense of white supremacy intact.

The fact that she didn’t give him “the full force of what she could do” initially and that she sent him “to one of his own kind” are not inherently racist propositions. The full force of what she could do is not co-equal to what was required by her job. Her job required her to point this man to resources that could help in his plight. She did that. No more and no less. The full force of what she could do involved her tireless advocacy on his behalf, and she eventually did that, too. Doing the bare minimum might not be admirable, but it isn’t intrinsically racist either.  And frankly, the wholehearted expectation that Black folks act as Christ figures, always going above and beyond the call, in our national narrative of racial redemption is tired, old, and unfair.

I watched David Gergen, whom I admire, talk yesterday about Ms. Sherrod’s “ascendant quality,” about her ability to rise above the legitimate racial pains of her past to help this white farmer. And then ironically my morning meditation was on Ephesians 4:8-9, a passage about Christ’s ascension and freeing of the captives. So it dawns on me: Americans want Black women to be Jesus. We are to be spit upon, mocked, discredited, and crucified, but at the end we are to forgive and remain gracious. As a strategy of personal living and transformation, that’s fine, but no one should have to be Jesus to do their job effectively.

Second, Sherrod sent the Spooner family to a white lawyer on the basis of the fact that this lawyer would have more power, not less power, than a Black attorney. Such a move is the opposite of discrimination. And folks might not like it, but I’m gonna say it:  if a white person had reasoned in the ways Ms. Sherrod did, this would have been racism. Let’s stop kidding ourselves with these faulty notions that black folks and white folks enjoy the same amount of social, economic or political power. If a white person in power decides not to give the full force of what she or he can do for a Black person, the power dynamic in such a move means that this white person is using race plus power to discriminate, which is the definition of racism. If a white person sends a Black person to “one of his own kind,” coming from a white person this rhetoric cannot be understood outside a history of seeing Black folks as inferior and less than.

Shirley Sherrod’s story demonstrates that an honest engagement with the politics of racism makes the operation of power all the more clear, exposing even the often hidden reality of class. Our goal should not be to get “beyond race.” Our goal should be to work tirelessly to eliminate racism and the operations of white supremacy. I acknowledge that holding the concept race intact is complicit in the continuing operation of racism. But I think those folks who think that eliminating racism starts with eliminating “race” are just plain wrong.

In fact, we’re trying that strategy now, and what it has led to is a vacuous rhetoric of colorblindness and racial transcendence, all the while hard-working Black women can lose their jobs on a whim, immigrants who’ve been working hard and shoring up the service economy in this country for decades are being deported, and young Black men and women continue to be murdered by the police. Deciding that “whiteness” and “blackness” shouldn’t matter when they clearly do matter is not the solution.  But radically honest conversations, even when the truths they tell are ugly, followed by radically courageous policy implementation is the first step to the future we are seeking.

Photo: Andrew Breitbart, the rightwing blogger, has yet to apologise to Shirley Sherrod. Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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Author: Dr.Brittney (9 Articles)


Brittney Cooper Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her Ph.D. at Emory and her undergraduate at Howard.

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