You may have heard, that a USDA official, Shirley Sherrod, gave a talk at an NAACP luncheon, in which she related a parable about how, in the 1980's, she was working for an agency trying to help black farmers, when a white farmer came to her, seeking badly-needed help. It was part of a larger talk on how she was required by this encounter, to throw out preconceived notions of race, and come to realize that all farmers were hurting, just not black farmers. The 45-minute talk was a window into how preconceived notions of black and white and all race were barriers that needed to be dismantled if people were to get the help they deserved. This was back in March.
Flash forward to July, and Andrew Breitbart, conservative gadfly, excerpted the portion of the speech about the white farmer, and Ms. Sherrod's remarks to the effect that she "didn't help him enough," and then proceeded to use the decontextualized video as a means to batter the Obama Administration on its race relations and raise the specter of "reverse discrimination." This was in response to NAACP accusations regarding certain members of the Tea Party and their racist views, questioning why the party had not repudiated these elements. The whole thing was wrapped up in a neat package, fired off on Mr. Breitbart's various blogs, repeated by Fox News, and held up as a sign that the Obama Administration was in the habit of hiring people who would discriminate against whites, as a form of revenge for the egregious excesses of slavery.
The overreaction was swift. Ms. Sherrod was asked to resign (by whom is still a subject of debate, as no one seems to want to claim the honor), and the NAACP condemned her. Mind you, this was before anyone decided to review the full contents of the speech on the video tape, a video tape conveniently owned by the NAACP.
When the tape was finally reviewed, the picture became much clearer, as it often does when the light of day is shone into the dark corners of society. It turns out that rather than confirming her "reverse racism," the tape not only exonerated Shirley Sherrod, but held her up as the kind of conscientious public servant we actually want in government. Sudden and profuse apologies were issued, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was reported to have said he was willing to reinstate Ms. Sherrod, though she is not quick to accept.
So what have we learned? The simplest answer is: the Obama Administration is on the defensive, and is hyper-sensitive to issues of race, when it has no need to be. The next answer: the NAACP has lost some of its élan by throwing someone under the bus before getting all the facts straight. The final answer, and no great surprise: conservatives will stop at nothing to embarrass, denigrate, harass, and upbraid the current administration, based on falsehoods and ignorance.
Conservatives in the Republican Party were ticked off enough that they were unceremoniously denied further power, when their dynamic duo of McCain and Palin failed to woo the moderate electorate, so crucial for winning elections. They immediately began to look for any flaw, any issue, to drive a wedge between the President and the people. So began the claims of Kenyan birth, secret plans to fill the White House with blacks bent on retribution for slavery, election-related misdeeds by ACORN, and a constant hammering of the President's agenda, even where they had previously supported the action. Stimulus, Wall Street bailout, health care, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," war policy in Iraq and Afghanistan... no matter what, no matter where, they would do battle, sure that they could hoodwink the populace into thinking that President Obama was going to begin rounding people up and denying people their rights.
Sadly, too many people in America buy into this kind of claptrap, and they are the kind of people who answer polling questions. America is moderate by nature, because it has to be -- the citizenry is a mixture of so many things that there is bound to be conflict, so cooperation and concession is the order of the day. At some point, the playing field must be made as level as is practicable, is everyone is to have the same level of freedom and liberty. The fringe wings of both the Republican and Democratic parties would have you believe the other is the ruination of the country and the world; reality lies somewhere in the middle. With each change in administration, the power of opposition shifts. George Bush was roundly criticized and excoriated for his policies (by yours truly, as well, though hopefully with some semblance of decorum) by Democrats; Barack Obama must now face the same withering fire from Republicans. His attempts to create bipartisanship are admirable, but as of this late date, fruitless. He must now take the tack his predecessor did -- forge ahead and let the critics have their say, but not engage them at every turn.
This whole event need never have happened. The Administration must, of needs, explore the possibility that there is some truth to the accusations, but no such overreaction was required. A contemplative and thorough review was required, to avoid the appearance that conservatives were capable of giving the White House marching orders, and to expose the truth. President Obama and his staff must never fall into this trap again. Let conservatives rant, let Republicans filibuster and bluster, and bring this directly to the American people. Show them the ridiculousness of such things, if they don't already know, and make it clear that the President is trying to the best for all Americans, and he doesn't expect everyone to like it. The winner is the side that can say it tried, without flinging mud. Look for the dirty uniforms, and you will see the people in the trenches, people like Shirley Sherrod, who are playing the real game, pushing America forward instead of constantly trying to hold it back.