On Monday, the Department of Agriculture demanded the resignation of Shirley Sherrod over a two-minute videotape where she appeared to describe to a cheering crowd of the Georgia NAACP how she denied assistance to a poor white farmer about to lose his land.
Declaring itself “appalled” at this “shameful” act of racism, the NAACP said it would investigate the Georgia crowd that cheered her and praised the Department of Agriculture for firing her.
On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was begging for Sherrod’s forgiveness, and the NAACP was burbling apologies.
For the video turned out to be an excerpt from a speech in which Sherrod described her growth from a bitter black woman whose father was murdered by a white man into one who found joy helping poor white folks keep their farms.
What was it that caused the rush to judgment by Vilsack, the NAACP and a White House that supported the ouster of Sherrod without talking to her or viewing the full tape?
Panic. The White House fears it is losing white America because of a false perception that it harbors a bias against white America.
Outrageous, rail those journalists who celebrated the NAACP’s accusation that the tea party is harboring racists and is too cowardly to confront them.
Yet, as things perceived as real are real in their consequences, if the White House does not eradicate this perception, its lease may not be renewed. Whence comes that perception? Several incidents.
First was the startling accusation by Attorney General Eric Holder, days after Barack Obama was inaugurated in a gusher of good feeling, that we are all “a nation of cowards” when it comes to facing issues of race.
A real icebreaker for a national conversation.
Second was the instantaneous verdict of the president, when asked about the arrest of Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates by Cambridge cop Sgt. James Crowley. With no knowledge of what happened, Obama blurted out that the cops had “acted stupidly.”
It took a White House beer summit to detoxify that one.
A third was the revelation that Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the “wise Latina” herself, had gone to extremes to see that the case of Frank Ricci and the New Haven, Conn., firefighters never got to the Supreme Court. Ricci and co-defendants had been denied promotions they had won in competitive exams solely because they were white and no black firemen had done as well.
The fourth was the Justice Department’s dropping of charges against members of the New Black Panther Party, whose intimidation of voters in Philadelphia had been captured on tape.
When a department official resigned in protest and went to the Civil Rights Commission to accuse officials at Justice of ordering staff attorneys not to pursue such cases, that explosive charge, too, was ignored by Justice.
Came then the NAACP smear that the tea party was harboring racists, which Joe Biden explicitly rejected on national television on Sunday, before the Monday firestorm over Sherrod.
Now, whatever one’s views on each of these episodes in which race played a role, white Americans are being forced to address them. And, surely, the White House understands this is bad news for Obama and the Democratic Party.
For though the black community remains solidly behind Obama and the white majority is shrinking toward minority status by 2042 or 2050, depending on which Census survey one uses, whites in America still outnumber blacks five to one. And if forced constantly to come down on one side or the other of a racial divide, most folks will wind up with their own.
In past elections, Democrats have raised race – allegations that black churches were being torched in the South, that George W. Bush’s opposition to a hate-crimes bill meant he was coldly indifferent to the dragging death of a handicapped black man – to solidify and energize the minority vote. And, today, that vote remains solid behind Obama.
Where the erosion is taking place is in white America, among working- and middle-class folks who voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries but took a chance with Obama in the fall. Now, every time some new incident erupts, these folks are being tarred.
Opposition to affirmative action is racist. Supporting the tea party gives aid and comfort to racists. Opposing health care puts you in league with folks who used racial slurs on Rep. John Lewis. To raise the issue of the New Black Panther Party is to play the race card.
One understands the bitterness of tea-party folks who carry signs that read: “What difference does it make what this placard says? You’ll call it racist anyway.”
As the National Journal’s Ron Brownstein has been reporting, white America is increasingly alienated and distrustful of all our major economic and political power centers – the banks, big corporations, the government.
And, for the first time in our lifetimes outside the South, white racial consciousness has visibly begun to rise.
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