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Join the informed, opinionated journalists of The Times' editorial staff in lively discussions at our blog Ed Cetera.

July 22, 2010 at 12:19 PM

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Civil Disagreement: The Sherrod affair

Posted by Lynne Varner

Civil disagreements, with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board, is a feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Today the colleagues return to a perennial topic:race relations, in light of Shirley Sherrod, the USDA official fired and rehired for racial remarks taken out of context.

Lynne Varner, left, and Bruce Ramsey

Lynne Varner: Bruce, President Obama's financial reform victory lap this week was interrupted by a major stumble over Shirley Sherrod.

Catch up on the issue here and here.

It is unfathomable, and an example of the administration's hair-trigger sensitivity about being criticized as racially biased that no one bothered to listen to Sherrod's 45-minute speech. It is a compelling narrative about racial anger, hatred and redemption. Sherrod notes that she initially referred the farmer to a lawyer. But when the lawyer didn't help him, she stepped back in, and as the farmer and his family recounted to the Washington Post, personally helped save their farm.

It was a seminal moment in which Sherrod saw the plight facing farmers as equally horrific, regardless of skin color. The USDA has documented discrimination by banks and other entities against black farmers, but Sherrod understand that her role was to help everyone who asked for her help. Regardless of skin color or sympathy for the plight of black farmers.

Her words were taken out of context to fit a baseless charge.The administration has asked Sherrod to return. O'Reilly, who had been playing the speech snippet and criticizing Sherrod's language in high-handed manner, was on Wednesday contrite.
"I owe Ms. Sherrod an apology for not doing my homework . . . and for not putting her remarks into proper context," O'Reilly said.

Glenn Beck, on whose wrong side the administration feared ending up, also defended Sherrod, saying "context matters."

I have to imagine millions of Americans have stories similar to Sherrod's. Where is the white person who owns up to discovering urban communities populated by African Americans aren't the crime and poverty pits imagined? Where is the African American who discovers prejudices go both ways and the executive willing to admit they once thought affirmative action was a synonym for unqualified. These stories are out there, l'affaire Sherrod challenges us to have the courage to tell them.

Bruce Ramsey: Lynne, we’re not hearing these stories because of what just happened. It’s dangerous to tell on yourself.

I watched the YouTube of what Sherrod said, and it was clear that she was describing a thought of 24 years ago, and how she had learned from it. It was not a firing offense. Apparently Andrew Breitbart edited it to make it sound more shrill than it was, and more immediate, thus stirring up trouble. Some people make a living doing that.

Context counts. I recall that in Rep. Ron Paul's run for the Republican nomination for president in 2008, an article came out in The New Republic a day before the New Hampshire primary. It charged Paul with racial hate, based on some newsletters written under his name and sent out to his supporters in the early 1990s, when he was not in office. The letters contained some language that was racially insensitive--and so the author, James Kirchik, accused Paul of being a racial hater.

Except that he wasn't, in anything he'd said or done in his campaigns, or in office, or apparently any other time. It didn't fit the guy. But the spotlight was on him: Explain these letters. He said he hadn't written them and didn't support them, but damage was done.

In our political culture, the racial hit is a recognizable event. We have seen it before. Somebody wants to get you--and they find out something. The thing they find varies in odor, and in timeliness. But there is usually something there, particularly if stripped of the context. The power of it isn't only in the thing itself. It's in the audience--how willing they are to believe the worst. And people are often quite willing to believe the worst of those who are not like them, particularly if some authority tells them they should.

I'm glad Sherrod has been rescued. I hope that a person of a different race who made the same comment would have the same happy ending.

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