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Andy Ostroy Headshot

What the Shirley Sherrod Saga Says About America

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Shame on conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. Shame on USDA head Tom Vilsack. Shame on the NAACP. And shame on the Obama administration. Shame on all of them for their astonishing rush to judgement earlier this week in the Shirley Sherrod case. What happened to Sherrod is an embarrassing reminder of the racial dysfunction in America today and how politics continues to play a critical role in this ugliness.

Sherrod was summarily dismissed of her Department of Agriculture job Monday after Breitbart released an incriminating, edited tape of her speaking before a small NAACP audience in March in which she admitted 24 years ago to helping a white farmer less than she could have because he had acted "superior" to her. But in this same speech she shared her moment of redemption and the lesson she learned about race:

"That's when it was revealed to me that the job is about poor, versus those who have. And not so much about white -- it is about white and black, but it's not -- you know, it opened my eyes."

But the full tape was not released by Breitbart, only select clips which reinforced claims that Sherrod was a racist. The disingenuous blogger admitted to Fox TV host Sean Hannity that he was seeking retribution against the NAACP for its resolution last week condemning as racist certain elements of the conservative-fueled Tea Party.

So what happened next? The NAACP publicly condemned Sherrod; USDA officials, claiming to be acting on behalf of Vilsack and the administration, forced Sherrod to quickly resign; and Obama himself supported her firing and, as NAACP head Ben Jealous said about his own organization, was "snookered" by right wing zealots. What's truly incredible here is the speed in which they all demonized Sherrod without proper investigation and analysis of the full story, and without giving her the opportunity she pleaded for to defend herself. It was a swift, merciless racial witch hunt.

To be sure, the Washington landscape has gotten so contentious, malicious and partisan that calculating, irresponsible right wing rabble-rousers like Breitbart are race-baiting to score political points in their rapacious quest for power. In the process, they serve to anger and divide the races. Turn white against black, and vice versa. And they make Obama so overly sensitive to issues of race that he makes boneheaded decisions like hurriedly hopping on the bash-Sherrod bandwagon in a move clearly aimed at placating a bunch of blathering, inciting wingnuts. When is all this racial posturing going to stop?

Sometimes it takes a tragedy or travesty of justice to serve as the catalyst for change; a wake-up call to those in power. Let's hope the rush to villify Sherrod, and the humiliating public relations shitstorm that followed, is a lesson learned for the media and politicians to take a deep collective breath and do their due diligence before shamefully playing into the duplicitous hands of the partisan and racist operatives who seek nothing but turmoil and division in our nation. Next time, before they trip over each other to hang someone out to dry, perhaps they'll ask a few questions first.

A footnote to this story: on Wednesday the USDA reinstated Sherrod, and Vilsack issued a sincere, heartfelt apology to her. It is likely that Obama himself will reach out now and apologize as well. But when it comes to race relations in America today, I'm not so sure that all's well that ends well.