The NAACP has admitted that it was "snookered" by Fox News and Andrew Breitbart. Earlier this week, Breitbart posted a misleading excerpt of a speech that Shirley Sherrod, now a former USDA official, delivered at an NAACP-sponsored event. The portion of the tape suggests that Sherrod, in her capacity as a USDA official, harbored racism towards a white farmer and did not effectively help him to protect his land. Fox News ran a story on the subject that condemned Sherrod. The broader context, portrayed on the full tape, paints a more innocent and inspiring picture.
Sherrod was referring to her representation of a white individual 24 years ago. At the time she worked for a nonprofit organization that assisted farmers seeking to keep their land. Although she thought that her client was privileged by race, she learned through dealing with him that he was vulnerable by poverty. Sherrod offered the story to encourage the audience to move beyond simply thinking of race as a source of inequality.
So, rather than being a bigot, as portrayed by Breitbart and Fox News, Sherrod exhibited the maturity that life experience brings. Also, Sherrod worked to help the farmer she described in her story. In fact, his wife says that she is a "friend for life." Sherrod also has a long record of accomplishment with respect to civil rights.
People who know Sherrod have emailed me, and they describe her as a dignified individual who respects others and who works hard to protect disadvantaged individuals. They also urged me to write on the subject.
Many liberal bloggers and commentators who have addressed this topic have focused on Breitbart and Fox News. These, however, are easy targets. I will instead focus on the NAACP. I believe that the NAACP could learn many lessons from this fiasco.
NAACP Afraid of Race?
The NAACP exhibited a degree of fear about race that is odd for an organization that deals with racial discrimination. Rather than fully investigating the record of events, the NAACP immediately released a terse statement condemning Sherrod. The organization rushed to racial judgment.
It is difficult to separate the organization's reaction to Sherrod from its controversial criticism of racist "elements" in the Tea Party. In response, the Tea Party and conservative bloggers accused the NAACP of being a bigoted organization. Once the misleading footage of Sherrod emerged, the organization dismissed her as a bigot in order to protect its own image.
This rush to judgment is intolerable and, ironically, suggests that the organization feared some of the public backlash that might come from dealing with questions of race in a thoughtful -- rather than kneejerk -- manner. While race remains a delicate and feared topic in the US, the NAACP should not view race in the same manner.
NAACP Technologically Unsavvy
The NAACP also acted in a very unsophisticated fashion, given the state of media technologies. In the age of Youtube, it is very easy to alter or edit a person's words to create misleading footage. Fox News and Breitbart have a history of doing this. For a major civil rights organization to fall for a "gotcha" video and immediately condemn a civil rights veteran is absolutely unacceptable.
More Important Race Issues
At present, the most widely known advocacy of the NAACP in 2010 involves condemning "elements" of the Tea Party and dismissing Sherrod as a bigot. These are not the most pressing racial issues that people of color face in the US or globally.
The organization should have more prominent advocacy on eduction, criminal justice, immigration, healthcare, and other issues that impact the lives of persons of color. These structural concerns are more pertinent than Breibart, Fox News, or "elements" of the Tea Party. Looking for a boogey man represents an outmoded way of thinking about racial inequality. Structural racial inequality matters much more than individual bigotry.
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