Caught in the Crossfire: Former USDA official Shirley Sherrod.

Our inability to honestly discuss race in America led to the political takedown of an innocent woman. But Shirley Sherrod’s story offers profound lessons on how to bridge the divide and finally get this thing right.

The Shirley Sherrod incident, the latest stumble in our nation’s clumsy dance with race, should be the one that finally breaks us out of our rut of racial dysfunction and shows us that we’ve got to change our moves if we’re ever going to advance to a more meaningful discourse on the subject race relations in America.

But it won’t be.

We’ll continue to play our respective race cards, working ourselves into stalemates of anger and cynicism … casting blame and derision on others over perceived slights, both real and imagined … barricading ourselves behind walls of suspicion and resentment. And the end result: We’ll continue to be just as clueless and divided as we were before.

Post-racial? Ha! More like post-human, as we’ve become comfortable with the practice of turning people who are different from us or with whom we disagree into ugly labels, devils that we can rightfully attack or simply ignore.

Just look at conservative activist Andrew Breitbart’s statements after he falsely depicted Sherrod as a racist on his popular blog. “I could care less about Shirley Sherrod, to be honest with you,” he told Fox News without a trace of shame or remorse. His concern was defending the honor of his right-wing compatriots after the NAACP came out a week earlier with its pronouncement against the “racist elements” within the Tea Party movement. He said, “This is about tarring the American people and the Tea Party movement with the false charge of racism.”

The sad irony in this latest debacle is that Shirley Sherrod is a woman whose story actually points to a more positive and hopeful way of addressing our racial struggles. The video of Sherrod that Breitbart posted on his site showed only two-and-a-half minutes of Sherrod’s 40-minute speech to an audience of NAACP members. Taken out of context, the former USDA employee seemed to be boasting of her unwillingness to help a white farmer. But viewed in full, the video shows a woman courageously confessing her own past prejudices and how she learned to overcome them. (And Breitbart’s claim that her audience was cheering on her “racist” story just doesn’t stand up against an objective viewing of the tape — what’s more, it may also reflect Breitbart’s unfamiliarity with the call-and-response nature of many African American oratorical events.)

The bottom line: Sherrod wasn’t preaching racism but racial reconciliation. Sadly, Breitbart could care less about any of that. And that’s precisely the problem that we face when we make politics more important than people.

Of course, Breitbart isn’t the only one who came out smelling stinky. The NAACP leadership, apparently wanting to affirm its political objectivity after challenging the Tea Party on race, was too quick to condemn Sherrod, even though one would presume it more than anyone else would take the time to review the full video of a speech from an NAACP event.

And then there’s the Obama administration. Wanting to avoid the ever-present Obama-likes-blacks-better-than-whites charge on a day when the president signed a historic financial reform bill, the Department of Agriculture put the squeeze on Sherrod to resign from her USDA position without even the courtesy of a hearing on the matter.

Race has become like the toxic fear gas that the Scarecrow unleashes on Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s first Batman film. Just the mention of the word sets off all manner of paranoia and irrational behavior.

Strangely enough, President Obama, perhaps still smarting from the Jeremiah Wright scandal and last year’s Henry Louis Gates Jr.-Beer Summit imbroglio, has become the one national leader least able to bring up the issue of race, lest he risk the backlash of his political opponents. In fact, it seemed easier for our other “first black president” to talk about race than it does for this one. His critics view it as part of the Obama charade, while his supporters simply accept it as a political reality. After his inspiring speeches on diversity and race, many of us probably did expect Barack Obama to take on the role of Reconciler-in-Chief once he assumed the presidency. His newly appointed Attorney General even seemed to be laying the foundation for a fresh national conversation on race. But with two wars, a crumbling economy, and an ambitious goal to reform health care, the last thing Obama wanted was to get knocked off message by the specter of race.

Addressing issues of race, class, and culture in America is hard stuff. Some folks insist that just the mention of it means we’re somehow being racist, especially when the person bringing it up is black. Others point to the progress made over the last 40 years, especially the election of an African American president, as proof that racism is no longer an obstacle to the advancement of people of color in America.

The truth is, there’s good news and bad. The good news is that things have improved significantly, and the doors of opportunity are open more widely than ever before to people of all races and backgrounds. The bad news is that the scars of slavery and segregation run deeper than any of us could ever know, and they continue to impact everything from our educational system to our understanding of marriage and family. Politics often force us to emphasize one of these truths to the exclusion of the other. But until we give equal weight to both of those realities, we’ll fail as a nation to bring honest, credible, and cooperative efforts to the task of undoing the damage of the past and embracing the promise of the future.

What Shirley Sherrod’s story teaches is that both of these perspectives can coexist. And, indeed, they must in order for us to move forward in a fruitful and authentic fashion.

A few additional lessons from the Sherrod incident …

Calling a white person a “racist” has in many ways become the equivalent of calling a black person a nigger. White people are tired of being repeatedly cast as the villains in our nation’s racial drama, especially when it seems political correctness forbids them from broaching racial topics while blacks and other ethnic groups are free to bash whites for their racial prejudice. This perception of a double standard looms large in our dealings with race, and it will hinder our efforts at progress unless we’re all able to engage in frank communication about these tough subjects without fear of being labeled a racist.

At the same time, black people are tired of whites refusing to see the implications of race on their daily lives. Earlier in our nation’s history, blacks were forced to view the world in racialized terms, while whites could take their skin color and the social benefits it afforded for granted. While things have changed for the better, the legacy of past injustices still affects the way many people of color see the world. And for them, talking about race is simply acknowledging the obvious. It doesn’t mean we’re being racist, but as was the case with Mrs. Sherrod, it may mean we’re wrestling with the fallout of those past injustices.

Finally, as we engage each other across racial and cultural lines on these difficult subjects, we must start thinking less in terms of racism and more in terms of sin. Many take issue with the notion that there’s such a thing as “reverse racism,” because the balance of power in this nation would need to have always been equal in order for that to be true. While those matters remain a topic for honest debate, for Christians one thing is indisputable: We all stand on level ground when it comes to sin. The Bible says we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). When we acknowledge that, we realize that we are all guilty of stereotyping, of falsely accusing our neighbor, of harboring prejudice, suspicion, and ill will toward those who are not from our particular interest group.

We have to be willing to rediscover the true meaning of Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, that it’s not some hackneyed truism or the cute poetry of a Middle Eastern hippie. Loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is at the center of everything we’re supposed to be about as Christians, and those Americans who argue that we are a Christian nation should be the first ones living out this “love your neighbor as yourself” truth. Unfortunately, when ideology becomes our idol, disregarding our neighbor can become the acceptable thing to do, especially if the story about something she did two decades ago can be conveniently manipulated to make our political point.

Related Article: Collateral Damage.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, it was reported that the video of Shirley Sherrod speaking to the NAACP audience was 24 years old. In fact, the incident she recounts in the video was 24 years old, not the video itself.

Photo of Shirley Sherrod from Wikipedia.

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