07/23/2010 11:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Sherrod Case: Now What?

I can't recall the specific incident, but several years ago Julian Bond, civil rights icon and then Chairman of the Board of the NAACP, called the Republican Party "shameless" and the Democratic Party "spineless" when it comes to the issue of race. The Shirley Sherrod incident--the editing of the tape to make her appear racist and the trigger happy behavior of both the NAACP in denouncing her and the Obama Administration in firing her based on the edited tape--is an excellent example of the truth of Mr. Bond's assertion.

The editing of the Sherrod tape was not, as far as we know, the work of the Republican Party, per se. But the editing, the posting by "shameless" right wing zealot Andrew Breitbart, and Breitbart's false accusations about both Sherrod and the NAACP are consistent with the Republican Party's strategy of stoking the fears of white people about both black people and the Democratic Party. It's a strategy that works largely because Democrats, rather than standing up for their principles and using these scare tactics as "teachable moments," take the bait and run for cover any time the issue of race comes up.

During the recent hearings on the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, several Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee raised her close association with former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and then tried to demonize the late Justice Marshall. Democrats, rather than responding with a vigorous defense of Justice Marshall, the first African American on the Supreme Court and a true American hero, left it largely to others, including Justice Marshall's son, to defend his memory. When Harvard scholar Henry "Skip" Gates, an African American, was arrested by a white police officer under highly questionable circumstances last summer, President Obama asserted--accurately--that the police had acted "stupidly." The Republicans ignored the incident and jumped on the President's remark to try to paint him as biased against the police. But rather than forthrightly confronting the issues of racial profiling and negative racial stereotyping, the President punted his way into the "beer summit." As far back as 1992, President Clinton abandoned Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier at the first sign of controversy rather than take the opportunity to address the racial issues raised by the controversy.

The Republican Party's "shameless" behavior goes back at least 40+ years to Richard Nixon's "southern strategy." It continued with Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" myth, George H.W. Bush's infamous Willie Horton commercial, the blatantly racist commercial against Democrat Harold Ford, Jr. that helped to elect Republican Bob Corker to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee, and the Kagan hearings.

So, here we are again at a "teachable moment" on race. What can we learn if we don't fritter away this moment?

-We could learn a lot about our history of racial oppression and its legacy by exploring the experiences in Mrs. Sherrod's life that made her feel as angry as she did many years ago.

-We could learn a lot about the process of racial reconciliation and racial healing by examining how Mrs. Sherrod had a change of heart that has guided her behavior since then.

-We could learn a lot about institutional racism in the society by discussing the issue of moral equivalence and whether all racial discrimination is equal.

In his Philadelphia speech in the wake of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright video clips, candidate Obama spoke passionately about the legacy of our history of racism, how it affects both black people and white people, and what we need to do to achieve enduring equity and healing. He should re-read his speech and re-discover that passion. Mr. President:

-Talk honestly and sensibly to the American people about race, perhaps in another "Philadelphia speech" or better yet, in a series of Roosevelt-like "fireside chats."

-Raise their awareness of our history of racism and how that history affects all of us today--black, brown, and white.

-Charge the Community Relations Service of the Justice Department with developing a nation-wide, community-based educational campaign designed to promote equity and healing.

-Take control of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and charge them to examine the evidence of our society's persistent institutional racism, as ably documented by organizations like the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the National Urban League, and to propose new solutions.

A population that is educated about race rather than ignorant of it will be more likely to reject "shameless" race-baiting. There is a popular commercial that asserts that "an educated consumer is our best customer." By the same token an educated voter is our best hope.