Attorney General Eric Holder
said it plainly at a Department of Justice event celebrating Black History Month last year: "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been and we, I believe, continue to be in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards."
He said that Americans -- and he was talking about all Americans -- are afraid to talk about race, adding that "certain subjects are off-limits and that to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one's character."
At the time, Holder's words were called "provocative" and "stinging." After the events of the last two days, a bruised Shirley Sherrod
knows they're true.
At a March NAACP meeting, the Agriculture Department official honestly related her long-ago journey of redemption and reconciliation: A young woman -- raised on a Georgia farm -- was driven by the murder of her father by a white man to seek equality for African-Americans. She became a grown woman committed to justice for all. A white farmer in trouble helped open her eyes to see "It's not about race. It's about those who have and those who do not."
If you listen to the entire speech
-- not just the heavily edited clip that first made the rounds and got her fired – Sherrod's tale unfolds like testimony you might hear at a Sunday morning church service, complete with encouraging call-and-response from the crowd.
That's an appropriate comparison since it wasn't just the farmer who paved Sherrod's way in her anecdote from more than two decades back. "God helped me to see that it's not just about black people," Sherrod said. "It's about poor people. And I've come a long way. I knew that I couldn't live with hate, you know."
The executive director of the nonprofit Sherrod worked for before being appointed to the USDA job in 2009 told CNN
on Tuesday that there were never any claims of discrimination against her. "I can't praise Shirley enough," he said. "She holds no malice in her heart."
The white farmer and his wife – Roger and Eloise Spooner
– promptly offered the proof of Sherrod's words, praising her for helping them keep their farm. They count her as a friend and, on CNN, Roger Spooner said the charges against the woman he calls "Miss Shirley" are "hogwash." They want her to get her job back, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
, in a press conference on Wednesday, apologized
for his hasty action. "I asked for Shirley's forgiveness and she has been gracious enough to give it to me," he said. The "good woman," who was put through "hell," got a better job offer and is considering it. The White House earlier offered an apology
Sherrod's personal story had a happy ending, if you don't count the being vilified and fired part. She went on to help farmers of every race, including the black farmers
who lost their property after suffering documented instances of discrimination. Their much-more-common stories are lost in the rush to chase Sherrod's imagined anti-white actions. Then again, man-bites-dog always makes better copy.
An NAACP resolution
asks the Tea Party movement to call out "racist elements" at its fringes and is promptly called "racist" itself, with a resolution from one Tea Party group questioning the civil-rights organization's tax-exempt status. Tea Party leader Mark Williams is cast out because of his cable TV rants and a letter to Lincoln labeling slavery a "great gig" for black people. Then, tit-for-tat, the edited Sherrod clip surfaces, the smoking gun of NAACP racism that proved to be a fantasy. It's as much a fantasy as the notion that the New Black Panther Party
– a fringe hate group embroiled in a tangled voter intimidation case – represents anyone except a few dozen publicity-seeking malcontents.
Observing the cross-talk and counter-charges, something else becomes clear. With politicians leading the way, we believe the worst instead of the best of one another, whether it's a group, such as the NAACP or the Tea Party, or an individual like Shirley Sherrod.
If you only pay attention to recent headlines, you would think that Americans still live across a racial divide, when the truth is progress has been made. I remember certain places I couldn't go, barriers I couldn't cross because of the color of my skin. Today, my son is living in a country with an African-American president; he can't imagine that in a huge chunk of the country, his own parents' marriage would have been against the law until the late 1960s. (Thanks to the often-vilified federal government and Supreme Court, we could celebrate in my Maryland home instead of rushing off to D.C. for the ceremony.)
But any talk of post-racial America was obviously premature, if understandable. An America that struggled with slavery and legalized Jim Crow doesn't want to be bothered by sophisticated 21st century versions of division, fueled by economic uncertainty. The mere mention of "racism" is judged "racist," as though keeping a lid on anything will keep it from blowing. The election of a black president was a breakthrough. But few wanted to admit that with change comes anxiety and, sometimes, fear. Some of my white friends – who voted for and against President Obama -- have admitted an uneasiness that America is different from the country they grew up in. I don't accuse them. I admire their honesty and value that they trust me enough to open up. That's when the conversation starts.
Those conversations are rare, though. After the destruction of Shirley Sherrod, should anyone wonder why? The Obama administration has apologized to the wronged lady – nothing yet from the "news" organizations that pushed the edited clips -- but her life won't be the same.
Holder, in his prescient message, said: "Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial."
We talk all right. Maybe the problem is -- no one is listening.