Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lessons For the NAACP From the Shirley Sherrod Fiasco

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.

See also:

Shirley Sherrod Wants to Educate President Obama On Issues of Race

This Is How Post-Racialism Looks: Another Take on the Firing of Shirley Sherrod

Vilsack Reviewing Sherrod Firing, But She Is Not Sure She Wants the Job.


Howie said...

Great job Darren. This is one of the most thoughtful analyses of this whole debacle.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Thanks, Howie!

davemartin7777 said...

I liked it too... great read.

Obviously your skill lies in deconstructing complicated issues.

The NAACP is an important voice in maintaining civil rights, I hope you send them a link to your post.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Thanks, Dave. I will send my contact a link.

Hippi Chicki Niki said...

While I like this is have one bit of dissent (yes, that was a very corny and not funny pun). I do think that we should continue to shine a spotlight on Brietbart. Actually, I think we need to shine as bright of a light on Breitbart as possible. This is not a one-time thing. This was not an innocent mistake on his part. This man, doing this exact same thing was allowed to persecute innocents and bring down an organization that had fought for years to defend the rights and serve he needs of the poor, minorities and otherwise disenfranchised groups. He attacked and defeated a group that was the first to sound alarm bells on the now infamous sub-prime mortgages. In that case, except for maybe on Countdown, Breitbart's role as the source of that fiasco and the fact that it was a deliberate attempt to destroy that organization went largely unnoticed by the MSM and the general public. When the controversy broke about the arrest of the people that orchestrated that little stunt for their attempt to interfere with the phones of a United States senator or the pitifully small backlash (in comparison to the original scandal) over the fact that the tapes were doctored to appear to show the exact opposite of what actually happened Breitbart was again largely ignored.

It is time we stop ignoring this person who keeps publicly admitting that he is editing and doctoring videotape in an effort to "take down" organizations that help minorities and the poor. It is tiime we shine the light on him as a vicious, hateful and unscrupulous small-minded person who is out to cause harm for others. Just as the fact that Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann, Media Matters and others have put a spotlight on the fabrications of FNC and has made it where many have ceased to see it as a credible source, we need to now do the same for Andrew Breitbart. Otherwise, we may be in this exact same place again next year with the reputation of some other organization that helps minorities and the poor in tatters and with some other innocent victims being thrown under the bus in Breitbart's effort to wage war against organizations that empower those who had traditionally been disenfranchised and who work to overcome the unfair privileges that still exist for the majority and for those with money.

While I believe that the Obama Administration, the media and, yes, the NAACP have lessons to learn about how to vet these kinds of accusations for credibility and how to react to them, I believe that it is more important that the American people learn who Andrew Breitbart is. Just like calling out racism, discussing race issues and educating others about race has value in that it serves to slowly rob racism of it's power and turn those who harbor it into villains in the public eye, we need to call out Breitbart, rob him of his power and show him to be the villain that he is.

Hippi Chicki Niki said...

P.S. I do applaud your focus on structural racial inequalities and recognition that is much more dangerous than the FNCs and the Breitbarts. The one thing I believe is important to note is that Breitbart, enabled by FNC, has had success at hurting those that fight to undo structural racial inequality and to spread a passionate resistance to them nationwide. Unfortunately, in 2010, we have a growing subgroup of the population that has been effective at undoing some of the advances of the last few decades and it is a little important to identify those who are doing so and focus on what they are doing. After all, it will be hard to influence public policy with an ever growing percentage of the population expressing opposition of those policies to their politicians. Perhaps getting supporters to recognize this as a problem and working an organized way to oppose it is a valuable thing.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

I ust think that focusing on individuals like Breibart or elements of the Tea Party is almost done to the exclusion of structural concerns. Certainly, structural concerns do not receive "resolutions" from the NAACP anymore -- at least not recently. Why is condemnation of the Tea Party the most popular resolution of the NAACP this year?

Hippi Chicki Niki said...

That is an excellent point. It should not be their only focus. I can see it being the one most noticed by the media, but it shouldn't be the sole or even primary focus of the NAACP. There are too many eduction, employment and criminal justice disparities and inequalities to focus on for that. Plus, there was a much better way to address this issue. Using such a emotionally charged word wasn't a good idea and was likely, as it ended up doing, to pull focus away from the point they were making. After some thought, it occurred to me that a campaign to educate the public on structural inequalities.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell did a really good job addressing the need to educate the public about what constitutes "racism" and to teach the there are forms of racism that aren't using the "n" word or segregation.

Hippi Chicki Niki said...

Finishing sentences is key:

After some thought, it occurred to me that a campaign to educate the public on structural inequalities would have been a better way to go.

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