JULY 20, 2010 6:09PM
The Lie of White Victimhood: In Defense of Shirley Sherrod
Boo hoo once more at the absurd claim that white folks are seemingly the newest victims of discrimination and racism in America.
Did you know that white people are oppressed in America? That the NAACP is a "racist" organization? And that white people, in particular white Conservatives, routinely suffer grievous discrimination in these United States at the hands of the Obama administration? I didn't until I started watching Fox News and listening to Right-wing talk radio.
It would seem that the voice of a few, amplified by a 24 hour Right wing propaganda machine, can indeed make a mountain out of a molehill. Here, Fox News can magnify caricatures such as the New Black Panther Party into perpetrators of high crimes and misdemeanors. Limbaugh et al. can reframe the NAACP as being a hate organization. And if one were to listen to Glenn Beck, there is a grand conspiracy against "ordinary" "hard-working" White Americans that only he (as the rechristened Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) can save them from. In this long hot summer of race baiting by conservatives, we can add the bullying and subsequent resignation of Shirley Sherrod, a "racist" USDA official, to the list of the Right's short-term triumphs as they fight for a truly "colorblind" America.
Unfortunately, as long as it continues to pay dividends in the form of low hanging fruit, the news frame of white conservative victimology will predominate for the foreseeable future--where it serves as a distraction from the real issues imperiling our country's future.
Nuance and context were slain long ago by opinion based journalism and the rise of the 24 hour news cycle. There is no longer room for the delicate, for facts, or details that would suggest a news item is not as sensational as it would first appear. In the case of Shirley Sherrod, a person's career is now over precisely because of how race has become a spectacle, and the media replay a thin and tired narrative, one more than a century old, where white folks are portrayed as the real victims of racial discrimination in America.
I must ask a provocative question: What did Shirley Sherrod do that was so wrong? If one does some research, they would easily discover that she actually assisted a white farmer who had come to her seeking aid. Moreover, the moral of her speech, presented in heavily edited fashion by Fox News, was how class actually unites us, and where race is an illusion that separates folks of common concern and interest.
Let's be frank. As a practical matter, Shirley Sherrod was a bureaucrat faced with a condescending, quite likely embarrassed white farmer who had to ask a black woman (of all people, the horror...an experience that my fellow members of the coloured professional classes can certainly relate to) for assistance. She chose to offer the white farmer help, initially not going beyond the call of duty--but rendering the required amount of assistance--and also referred him to legal counsel. We may disagree about the level of professionalism she demonstrated in that first encounter, but once more how does a choice, one made some two decades before (and since resolved positively) reveal anything about Shirley Sherrod in the present?
To point. One more inconvenient data point excluded by the Right-Wing echo chamber in their witch hunt for Shirley Sherrod: the family of the white farmer in question has come out in her defense and praised the assistance she has given them over the years.
Most troubling is how context and history will be reimagined in this moment. The USDA has a long history of discrimination against black and female farmers. In fact, they settled a billion dollar lawsuit to make amends for the persistent harm done to farmers of color and women by that bureau's racist and sexist policies. Given the myopia and selective memory common to the Right and enabled by its media machine, one story of a black bureaucrat's choice to help a white farmer (and do not forget that she actually assisted him) will become the dominant, uncontested narrative, as opposed to the real racism and sexism--structural, persistent inequality and disadvantage--experienced by the plaintiffs who sued the USDA.
There is also a powerful irony in the Right wing's discovery of white victimhood. Beyond the absurd claims of anti-white racism or "reverse discrimination" (two examples of Orwellian new speak that are in fact oxymorons) the very people screaming the loudest about anti-white bigotry are the same people that consistently dismissed claims of prima facie racism against people of color. Racial minorities were told to "get over it," that they were imagining things. "So what if there is racism just work harder and stop complaining." Or my favorite, that black and brown folks should "stop playing the race card."
Funny, it seems that white conservatives have rediscovered their religion. Its name? The politics of grievance and identity. Born of Jim Crow and slavery, it was refined as Nixon's Southern strategy, used by Reagan and Bush, and was the patina and timbre of the McCain Palin campaign against Barack Obama. I wonder though, why doesn't the Right, and its aggrieved white membership, follow the same advice that they so generously gave to others?
And ultimately one must ask the obvious: If the roles were reversed, and a white bureaucrat made the same choices about a black farmer, how would the Right twist themselves into a knot defending him or her?