Lessons from Shirley Sherrod

By Lisa Bennett, NOW Communications Director

Where does one start with the whole Shirley Sherrod debacle? Let’s start with the positives. Through this right-wing attack, we were introduced to an amazing woman who handled the controversy and the public spotlight with dignity and integrity. We can learn a lot from Sherrod, if we can resist getting caught up in the spectacle of it all.

Sherrod is an inspiring public servant. Despite serious setbacks in her own life, Sherrod went on to help others, including the farmer she was talking about in her speech at an NAACP event — the speech that was deceitfully edited by right-wing hack Andrew Breitbart. Who knows how many lives Sherrod has touched throughout her career of working for nonprofits and the U.S. Department of Agriculture? That she almost became a casualty in the conservative effort to paint the Obama administration as practicing reverse-racism is despicable.

In fact, Sherrod is a shining example of transcending the wounds of racism. Her now infamous (or is it famous?) speech was all about evolving beyond reflexive bias. It was courageous of Sherrod to share with that audience her temptation to commit a second wrong when given the chance to discriminate against someone who, because of his race, represented those who had discriminated against her and other African Americans for centuries. Sherrod explained how she recognized that a poor white farmer could be oppressed by the “haves” in the same way people of color could. Her story is enlightening, and we should be thankful that it is now out in the public domain.

That said, the negatives to this story are many. This is a clear warning that the radical right is on a mission, and it doesn’t care who gets trampled in the process. The mainstream media, social justice organizations, and our government — all of us need to take care not to be put on the defensive so easily. Thoughtful discussions of racism and its long, destructive legacy, should not be derailed by these partisan attacks. This dialogue belongs to us, not to the blowhards who seek to divide people through wedges like racism and sexism. Let’s follow Shirley Sherrod’s example and seek common ground amongst all of us who stand to lose if the “haves” get their way.

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