The Trouble With Shirley: Race, Power and the Cow in the Room

07/22/2010 10:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • C. Nicole Mason Executive Director, Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest and Ascend Fellow at the Aspen Institute

The trouble with Shirley Sherrod is that she told the truth. In a small town speech before an even smaller NAACP chapter, she grappled publicly with the discomfort of what happens when power and decisions that can impact the lives of ordinary Americans are in the hands of individuals who have traditionally been shut off from power or not had access to resources. In many ways, it is the struggle that Obama has been confronting since he took office.

In our efforts to move past race, we have run right smack into it. There is no doubt about it. Despite our hopes, Obama's election has had exactly the opposite effect on race relations in the U.S. Rather than moving us toward a post-racial society, it has made us hyper vigilant of how race and power intersect in American society.

A few days ago, Shirley's email box was filled with hate messages. Today, it is overwhelmed with apologies. There's a big cow in the room. While I think Ms. Sherrod deserves an apology, I think the biggest apology we owe is to ourselves for trying over the last couple of years to sweep the issues of race and racism under the rug.

Today, we know more about how Blacks and racial and ethnic minorities feel about race than any other time in the history of the country. And because there are more Blacks and racial and ethnic minorities in positions of power, there is more scrutiny for now what is being called reverse racism.

In her Position as the USDA Director of Rural Development for Georgia, Shirley Sherrod was in a unique position both as an African-American and as a woman in terms of her ability to dole out much needed resources to farmers. When Sherrod visited the white farmer, perhaps, for the first time in his life, his livelihood and the survival of his farm was dependent on the decision of an African-American. This is a position that racial and ethnic minorities find themselves in all of the time. However, it is not a position that many whites find themselves in very often.

Historically, the USDA has been fraught with allegations of discrimination against racial and ethnic minority farmers. In fact, they have settled over $2 billion in lawsuits alleging bias in loan approval rates and the lack of diversity on county committees responsible for administering USDA programs. In 1920, one in every seven farms was owned by African-Americans. Today, it is only 1 in 100.

Just because we don't address race or the historical impact of racism on communities and individuals does not mean it no longer exists. What it does mean is that we will have a difficult time moving the country towards a more just and equal society.

Power is shifting in the U.S. The proverbial table is expanding and the halls of power are extending to groups who have been historically left out. Anti-immigration policies like the Arizona law and call of reverse racism from the Tea Party are attempts to maintain the historic flow of power and resources.

The lesson here is that to get to a post-racial society, we have to do the work as individuals, as communities and as a nation. And my friends, we are not there yet.