Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mary Sanchez: Detour on the road to ‘post-racial’ America

Whoever came up with the insipid term “post-racial” ought to be forced to sit down and read aloud the vile commentary that pours into any newsroom after it publishes or airs a story on race. That would quickly cure the urge to insist we’ve finally reached that harmonious other side of the rainbow.

We certainly saw no such evidence in recent days, even in the actions of Barack Obama’s White House, which is supposed to be living proof that Americans are “over” race. Administration officials acted as discreditably as the nation’s most storied civil rights organization, the NAACP, in its lame-brained, cowardly response to the latest racial provocation from the right.

By now the saga of Shirley Sherrod is well known. The Georgia Department of Agriculture official was forced out of her job based on a selectively edited video. Posted on the website of right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart, and then trumpeted on Fox News and other cable channels, the video made it sound like the African-American Sherrod had once refused to aid a farm couple because they were white. Conservatives went wild with indignation. In a hasty reaction, the NAACP called for Sherrod’s head, too. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack got it.

Both the NAACP and the USDA should have suspended judgment until they had done a little research. They would have discovered that Sherrod was actually telling a much longer tale, one of redemption. She had helped the white farmer save his farm, realizing that poor black and poor white have more, not less in common.

Unfortunately for Sherrod, Fox and Breitbart have almost unrivaled power to shape political debate in the United States. When they go on attack, their opponents tremble. In these times of the media’s 24-hour spin cycle, there are the quick and the dead. Vilsack acted in haste, and now he and his boss in the Oval Office have a mighty mess to clean up.

There is another racially charged dimension to this drama, one that most commentators and reporters don’t mention: The Department of Agriculture is still trying to settle lawsuits with black farmers who for decades were systematically denied loans, causing financial ruin for many in lost crops and land. (Interestingly, Sherrod herself is a former farmer who sued the government over this discrimination and won.) The Obama administration is backing legislation enabling a $1.25 billion grant to settle the outstanding claims, a plan that conservatives have attacked vigorously. That legislation was supposed to be voted on the very week Breitbart chose to release his edited video. Coincidence? And, of course, right before it nose-dived on the Sherrod story, the NAACP was battered for daring to adopt a resolution asking the tea party movement to shun the racists in its midst. The response? How dare the NAACP! And what about that New Black Panther Party? Ben Jealous, head of the NAACP, probably lost count of the times he was asked to denounce the actions of this handful of loons that decked themselves in paramilitary gear and hung out at a Philadelphia polling place in 2008.

Why does anybody care about the New Black Panther Party? Because Fox News will not stop excoriating the Obama administration with the false claim that it has done nothing to investigate or prosecute the group. The case keeps being dredged up, a specious example of a supposed pattern in the Obama White House of being soft on minority “racists” and lawbreakers.

It seems there’s always another side to these lurid stories — the truth, the complicated truth. But the truth seldom has the visceral appeal that Fox’s all-too-often fictional exposes have. And by the time accurate information makes its way into mainstream print media, the damage is done.

Post-racial America? Not happening. Not until people quit twisting the truth, pandering to the indignation of the hypersensitive, and feeling entitled to ruin the lives and careers of innocent people just to win a news cycle.