Following an embarrassing turn of events, the White House, via Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack have apologized to Shirley Sherrod. Sherrod was fired from her position at the USDA following the broadcast of a misleading video by rightwing blogger Andrew Breitbart and Fox News.
During the video, Sherrod appeared to state that she harbors personal biases against whites and that she failed to work diligently on behalf of a white farmer. The longer version of the video, however, reveals that Sherrod explained to the audience that by working with poor farmers, she learned to view poverty, regardless of race, as a disadvantaging factor. She also helped to save the white farmer's land.
Rush to Judgment
Rather than listening to the entire video or to Sherrod, who tried to explain her comments, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack immediately fired Sherrod, and the White House approved his actions. Now that that media have discredited the misleading video footage, Vilsack and Obama have apologized for the kneejerk and wrongheaded decision.
Vilsack has also offered Sherrod a job within the USDA. It is unclear, however, whether she will take the job. Earlier today, she indicated that she would feel uncomfortable returning to the agency.
The Costs of Post-Racialism: Race = Kryptonite
The Obama administration acted terribly in this situation. Rather than listening to a veteran civil rights advocate, administration officials trusted a misleading broadcast by rightwing Fox News and Breitbart.
The Obama administration, however, has long acted as if race were political kryptonite -- something to avoid at all costs. As Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic argues, this rush to avoid things racial led Obama to try and settle the stir surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates with a few beers. Obama unwittingly entered the political thicket when he said that the officer acted "stupidly." Once people began to describe Obama's comments in racial terms, he swiftly retreated. Similarly, in this situation, Obama (either before or after Sherrod's dismissal), quickly rushed to distance himself from race.
Many of Obama's supporters have argued that he must avoid discussing race -- even if they generally see value in racial discourse. Others, however, believe that society must abandon race discussions altogether. During Obama's campaign, for example, many of his supporters praised him as a symbol of post-racialism.
Post-racialism, however, is simply a rhetoric of denial. So long as inequality exists along racial grounds, the move to avoid discussions of race will do more harm than good. The post-racial discourse impedes honest conversations about the operation of discrimination and the existence of inequality. It also precludes the development of policies to ameliorate racial inequity. Hopefully, the cheerleaders of post-racialism -- especially those who became fans simply to support Obama's candidacy -- will now rethink this doomed approach.
For more on this subject, see:
Shirley Sherrod Wants to Educate President Obama On Issues of Race
Lessons For the NAACP From the Shirley Sherrod Fiasco
Vilsack Reviewing Sherrod Firing, But She Is Not Sure She Wants the Job