The Shirley Sherrod story has been characterized as another example of America’s complex struggle with racism. But despite its explosive nature, it’s actually a more basic tale of human selfishness.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28
When Shirley Sherrod was told by a superior at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pull her car over to the side of the road and submit her resignation by Blackberry, she was shocked. As she tried to explain the context of the video snippet posted by a blogger of her telling an NAACP group that she failed to do her best to help a farmer because he was white, she felt denial, and thought, “This can’t be happening to me.” As she typed the words “I resign,” into her cell phone, she became angry.
If you’ve ever been blindsided by a firing, like I have, you know these are the emotions you feel.
The story of Sherrod, who went from being a little-known USDA employee to the center of a showdown between the NAACP and the Tea Party movement, to receiving an apologetic phone call from President Obama, has been characterized as an example of America’s continued complex struggle with racism. But for me, it’s more basic. It’s simply about how insensitive and selfish people are as they think only about their own jobs, careers and agendas.
Andrew J. Breitbart, the conservative commenter who published the edited-out-of-context video of Sherrod’s speech, Andrew Breitbart Presents BigGovernment.com, claims he posted it in response to the NAACP’s demand that the Tea Party reject racist elements among its ranks. Breitbart said he wanted to uncover the NAACP’s hypocrisy. Truthfully, Breitbart’s goal was to raise his own media profile at the expense of Sherrod. Mission accomplished, but it’s he who has been exposed as McCarthyist posing as a journalist.
NAACP President Ben Jealous, who had been enjoying the media spotlight for his fiery speech denouncing alleged racists in the Tea Party, saw the video and worried that he was being counterpunched. A former journalist who ought to know you get the full story before making a statement, Jealous sends a tweet calling for Sherrod to be dumped. How could the head of an organization that has fought for 100 years for blacks to get equal access to jobs and freedom, throw a black woman (who has dedicated her life to civil rights) under the bus, so quickly? He was thinking about his own status, own reputation, own paycheck.
Spooked by the thought of the video showing up on FOX’s Glenn Beck Show and embarrassing the Obama administration, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, sent the word from on high down the chain to force Sherrod to resign. Forget about whether her previous performance reviews were excellent. Forget about giving her a full opportunity to explain the context of her speech. Innocence before guilt? What’s that? Forget the fact that in the video she was telling a story about what she did 24 years ago before she even worked for the USDA. Vilsack was probably thinking, “The White House is shaking. This could hurt my status in the administration or cost me my job. This low-level employee is just collateral damage. She’s got to go.”
At a time when the nation’s unemployment rate remains near 10 percent (nearly double for African Americans) it would seem that people in power and influence would be more sensitive to calling for someone’s firing. Sensitive to the emotional impact it has on a person, the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) it can trigger when you’re told, in a sense, that all of the work you’ve done is worthless. The economic impact it triggers when wages are lost (especially if you’re the main breadwinner), which is a key reason behind housing foreclosures being at an all time high. The pressure and strains it causes marriages and families overall. All this triggered because someone who was in a position to be considerate, humane and fair, chose instead to think only of himself and what he could lose.
Fortunate for Sherrod, her story is ending victoriously. Vilsack apologized and offered her another job at the USDA. We now know that Sherrod and her family have been on the frontlines of helping black and white farmers. CNN recently didand her joyful reunion with the Spooners, the white farming couple in Georgia who told the world on national TV that Sherrod was a friend who helped save their farm.
God works in mysterious ways.