USDA’s Shirley Sherrod, consumer rudeness, and the conundrum of blacks in power

African Americans, Featured, Shirley Sherrod, US — By Guest Author on July 23, 2010 at 05:43

By Dr. Ibram H. Rogers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently forced its Georgia director of rural development, Shirley Sherrod to resign for her supposed racism.

On Monday, a conservative blogger published a two-minute, 38-second video clip of a March 27 NAACP banquet. In the video, Sherrod apparently says she was in a position to come to aid a white farmer in keeping his land. But, she did not “give him the full force of what” she could do because the white farmer, who has come forward to defend Sherrod, was acting “superior.” The conservative blogger describes the story as a “racist tale.”

There is a national debate spreading through America as to whether Sherrod should keep her job and whether the story revealed racism.

Personally, I think the cause of Sherrod’s action (or lack thereof) for the farmer is less about race and more about consumer ignorance. I am sure that the vast majority of Americans screaming racism and calling on the USDA to keep her away would not serve a client or consumer with the “full force” of their effort, if that client or consumer was acting rude, belligerent, arrogant, or nasty to them. It just so happens, that the white farmer’s nastiness as a consumer was cloaked in race, as most blacks can not stand arrogant whites who walk around like they own everything and everyone, know everything and everyone, and are better than everything and everyone. Similarly, women do not like male clients who continually sexualize them in the marketplace, and probably hold back some of their help.

Is it right to hold back help to a client that is harassing you socially or sexually (or any other way for that matter)? In a perfect world, we would treat all of our clients—no matter their level of offensiveness—equally. But then again, in a perfect world, none of our clients would offend us.

I can not fault Sherrod for not having super-human consumer relationship skills. If anyone tries to make the claim that they treat all of their face-to-face clients equally, then they are lying. It is impossible, as consumer rudeness is one of the causes of that unequal treatment. But we do live in a world with people who have been taught to think people can be objective and unbiased, so I am sure some people think the impossible is possible.

This situation not only stokes a discussion about consumer rudeness and its effects, but also the conundrum that blacks in power face.

We live in a nation in which who you know is more important than what you know. That goes not only for securing jobs, but securing high levels of customer service. Black powerbrokers, particularly those who have not forsaken their black identity and not disconnected themselves from the black community, are constantly and consistently being watched by some of their white colleagues to see if they are “helping their own” or hindering whites. The over-the-shoulder dynamic is a diabolical feature of black leadership in America.

Why is this dynamic so prevalent? Why are some whites (and even blacks) looking to see if blacks are aiding other “unqualified” blacks? Why are some whites looking to see if blacks are discriminating against whites?

Well, for the same reason liars are always thinking someone is lying to them; the same reason cheaters constantly think they are being cheated; the same reason killers are always looking over their shoulders thinking someone is targeting them—the same reason. I am sure you know where I am going with this (The statistics on white pipelines and racism in the workplace have been well documented).

But that is only one half of the conundrum of black powerbrokers. The other more gruesome half is not what other people see, but what they see. They see those white pipelines flooding their offices with white workers. They see their colleagues discriminating against black workers. They see this stuff regularly—infuriating them and causing them to consider replicating it.

If some whites use their positions of power to advance white society at the detriment of blacks (and other groups), I must use my position of power to do the same or blacks will continue to be behind, some black powerbrokers reason. Whites are already ahead in certain aspects of America’s race life race they are cheating to boost their lead, so how will blacks ever catch up if we don’t cheat, some ask themselves.

Some, possibly most, take a moral stand and do not create black pipelines to counteract the white pipelines. Some choose to not consciously hold back for whites, like they see some of their white colleagues holding back for blacks.

It is a conundrum. I suspect aspects of this conundrum affects Sherrod and other blacks like her in positions of power.

What can they do to resolve it?

I suspect most blacks resolve this conundrum through helping out blacks when it is close and undetectable, even as some whites do not. They also block the views of whites looking over their shoulders for what’s becoming a prominent phrase: “reverse racism.” Like Sherrod, when they come across racist whites, they use that as an opportunity to do what they see their white colleagues doing.

But at the end of the day, they still feel bad, like Sherrod did, as her so-called “racist tale” was really a story of redemption, a story of what she should not be doing.

Yet, should they feel bad? When baseball players earlier in this decade saw their peers pumped with steroids excelling past them, did they feel bad when they started taking it to compete. Was it right? Technically, it was not right. But if they see everyone else doing it, is it still wrong? Concepts of rights and wrong must always be contextualized.

Socially responsible black powerbrokers have a conundrum on their hands. Do they take the moral high ground and watch the gap widen? Or do they use their positions to make sure blacks can at least reasonably compete, like other races are doing?

It is a conundrum.


Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is a post-doctoral fellow at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis. He is on leave from an assistant professorship in African American history at SUNY College at Oneonta. A recent recipient of his doctorate in African American Studies, his research concerns black student activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s and Black Power Studies more generally.

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