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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ron Walters: No White House Defense, So Racist Are Able Define Racism

No White House Defense, So Racist Are Able Define Racism
By Ron Walters

The case of Shirley Sherrod, who was fired from her job at the Department of Agriculture for being charged by Andrew Breitbart, a white nationalist, with making a racist speech at a March NAACP conference is on its way to being respectfully resolved. Breitbart had placed an edited eight minute video of Ms. Sherrod’s speech at an NAACP conference in March on his website to make a case for racism within the NAACP. Ms. Sherrod said that she had taken her job to help Black people, but when a white farmer came to her for help, understanding that many Black farmers had received no help, she would have to determine, in light of his arrogance in dealing with her, just how much help she would give him. And although she decided that she would do just enough, circumstances caused her to rethink her initial decision and go above and beyond the call of duty, coming to believe that what really mattered was that he was poor and not just white and as such had much in common with blacks.

But what still sticks in my craw is that all the parties to the sorry treatment of Ms. Sherrod based their actions in agreement with the concept of racism as defined by Andrew Breitbart, that the eight minute video segment showed racism both in terms of Ms. Sherrod’s statements and the audience’s response. It’s simply not there.

Most people now understand that the speech was actually 35 minutes and that this small segment was taken out of context of a complete story. But it should be noted that even the first eight minutes were not racist. It was not racist that Ms. Sherrod wanted to work only for Black people. Charge Cesar Chavez with being racist for only working for Hispanics. It was not racist that she remembered the past mal-treatment of blacks and decided how much help she would give him. It would only have been racist if she decided she would give him less than equal service. It was not racist for some in the audience to respond audibly in agreement with Sherrod who voiced the irony that the shoe was on the other foot and she now had the power to determine how to help a white farmer knowing that Black farmers had faced trouble at the hands of whites.

In other words, the cultural context within the exchange between Ms. Sherrod and the NAACP audience was a legitimate one for the expression of her past experiences and its validation by the audience. It only appears racist when taken out of that cultural forum, as was the case of the video of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and thrown into an arena where it was evaluated at the hands of conservatives who had neither respect nor much knowledge of Black culture.

This means that the White House, the media and other institutions are vulnerable to having racial situations being defined by those with a distinctly political agenda if they do not change their approach. So, they should take racism seriously rather than running from the issue for the reasons that many have written about, because the President lives in a country where race is one of the most dynamic issues and his own race will continually invite some relationship to those issues. In this sense, it was, and is, na├»ve for him and his advisers to believe that they can either ignore these issues or handle them on an ad hoc basis. They are as serious to his success as passing health care legislation and they deserve “war room” attention.

Either the White House, the NAACP, MSNBC and various other media outlets, and the Agriculture Department all agreed with Breitbart’s definition of the video segment, or they were afraid to have to defend the video against a Fox News campaign by its show hosts to shape the speech as racist. Perhaps it was both, but if they had been accurate about the concept, the Right wing campaign would have come to a halt right there. These institutions need expert and trusted advisers on racial issues that they use in the decision-making process not just for damage control. The NAACP should have known better, and done better, and its expertise on the issue would have been able to inform others.

First Rev. Wright, then Van Jones, Acorn, the New Black Panthers, now Breitbart all lead to the conclusion that this White House is inept in the handling of racial issues. Since the culture war against it will not stop, it should develop the capacity and the confidence to face it down.

Dr. Ron Walters is a Political Analyst and Professor Emeritus of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park. One of his books is: White Nationalist, Black Interests (Wayne State University Press)

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