Revolution #208, July 25, 2010

The Attack on Shirley Sherrod.... And the Truth About Racism in America

Shirley Sherrod is a Black woman who used to be the Director of Rural Development in Georgia, under the U.S. Department of Agricultural (USDA). On Tuesday, July 20, she was forced to resign after Fox TV ran a video clip of a speech she had given and accused her of being a "racist."

A ton of lies have been spread about Shirley Sherrod. So right off the bat, let's get some actual facts straight:

Shirley Sherrod has long been involved in fighting for the rights of Black people and especially poor Black farmers in Georgia. The video clip came from a speech she gave in March 2010 at an NAACP fundraiser. Sherrod tells the story of how in 1986 a white farmer came to her seeking help. Sherrod, who at the time was with a non-profit rural aid organization and not yet working for the USDA, said:

"The first time I was faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm, he—he took a long time talking, but he was trying to show me he was superior to me. I know what he was doing. But he had come to me for help. What he didn't know while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him. I was struggling with the fact that so many Black people have lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So, I didn't give him the full force of what I could do."

There was plenty of reason to question the motives of rightwing blogger Andrew Breitbart, who sent this short clip to Fox as "proof" that Sherrod is a "racist." Any journalist or government officials responding to this "story" should have, at the very least, bothered to watch the entire speech or call Sherrod to get her response. But NONE of this was done—and instead, before the sun rose again, the USDA had forced Sherrod to resign and the NAACP had issued a statement saying that Sherrod's actions were "shameful."

But the chorus of slander against Sherrod—from both rightwing conservatives AND Democratic liberals—was forced to end the next day when the truth came out. In fact, Sherrod had actually ended up really helping the white farmer, Roger Spooner. 82-year-old Eloise Spooner, Roger's wife, spoke out in support of Sherrod, saying, "If we hadn't have found her, we would have lost everything, I'm afraid." And the whole point of this story in Sherrod's speech was the complete opposite of what she had been accused of. She had gone on to say that working with the white farmer, "made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't, you know. And they could be Black; they could be white; they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people—those who don't have access the way others have."

USDA officials (and their bosses in the White House) found themselves with egg on their faces. On Wednesday, Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, quickly issued a public apology to Sherrod. The NAACP said they had been "snookered" by Fox TV. On Thursday President Obama called Sherrod and said he was sorry.

Vilsack said there had been a "misunderstanding." He fell on his sword to protect the emperor (i.e. Obama)—reiterating several times that it had been his decision alone to force Sherrod to resign. Vilsack kept saying this was a "teachable moment"—he said "we have to make sure we think before we act." But the REAL lessons of this whole incident are not something you're going to hear from a government official.

Here are some real and important things to learn from what happened to Shirley Sherrod:

1. We encourage anyone who hasn't watched the FULL video of Sherrod's speech to do so. The most powerful part of Sherrod's speech is the stories she tells about what it was like growing up in the South. And remember—this is not some ancient history we're talking about here. This is the 1960s. Sherrod and her family, like many Black people living today, experienced the terror of KKK lynch mobs and the humiliation of Jim Crow laws that dictated separate bathrooms for "colored and white" and forced Black people to ride in the back of the bus.

Sherrod says: "It was 45 years ago today that my father's funeral was held. I was a young girl at the age of 17 when my father was murdered by a white man in Baker County. In Baker County, the murder of Black people occurred periodically, and in every case the white men who murdered them were never punished. It was no different in my father's case. There were three witnesses to his murder, but the grand jury refused to indict the white man who murdered him." Sherrod recalls how shortly after this, she was at school when she learned that a bunch of white men had burned a cross in front of the house with her mother, four sisters, and baby brother inside. Her mother went out on the porch with a gun. One of her sisters got on the phone and called other Black men in the county who came and surrounded the house, forcing the white racists to flee.

Sherrod says the intense racism in the South and the back-breaking work of farming had led her to want to leave her hometown for the North. But that after the death of her father she said, "I made the commitment on the night of my father's death, at the age of 17, that I would not leave the South, that I would stay in the South and devote my life to working for change. And I've been true to that commitment all of these 45 years."

Sherrod made good on this promise, joining the Civil Rights and the Black Liberation Movements of the 1960s. These tremendous struggles brought down some barriers to formal inequality. But they did not tear up the deep roots of white supremacy that have been a part of the foundation of the U.S. capitalist system from the very beginning—and that continue to be in effect, in different ways, today.

Sherrod's speech talks about how back in the 17th and 18th century, there were black indentured servants and white indentured servants who worked and lived together and "they didn't see any difference in each other—nobody worried about skin color. They married each other. You know, these were poor whites and poor Blacks in the same boat, except they were slaves, but they were both slaves and both had their opportunity to work out on the slavery." But, she goes on to say, the "people with money" decided that they needed to do something about this, "the elite, decided, hey, we need to do something here to divide them. So that's when they made Black people servants for life. That's when they put laws in place forbidding them to marry each other. That's when they created the racism that we know of today."

Sherrod points to the injustice of what she sees as a society of haves and have-nots. And at the same time, she exposes the deep and systemic racism of American society. And it must be said that it is NOT racism to expose and fight against this oppression of Black people.

The whole video of Sherrod's speech refutes the lie that the way she treated this white farmer was a case of "racism." But even more than this, Sherrod's speech, and the whole incident surrounding her firing—reveals and underscores an even more profound truth: The long-standing, crying injustice of the oppression of Black people—that has been part of the economic and social foundation of the United States since the very beginning AND continues today in different forms.

2. The White House, Democrats, the NAACP—were all completely on the defensive in the face of the right wing's attack on Sherrod. The USDA fell all over itself to prove it would not tolerate such "racist" behavior. They rushed to fire her, without even bothering to look into the actual truth of the matter one bit. All the media people started jumping on this story without even checking the facts of the case. You didn't hear any politicians coming to Sherrod's defense. The NAACP quickly denounced Sherrod and scolded those in the audience who had applauded Sherrod's speech.

Think about this: They all took the word of a hatchet job by a guy, Andrew Breitbart, who has a whole history of engaging in exactly this kind of fraud. (Remember the whole way the community organization ACORN was set up in September 2009 with a heavily edited video purporting to show ACORN activists advising a supposed prostitution ring on avoidance of tax laws? Yes... this was Breitbart's handiwork—right down to the cutaway shots implying the man visiting ACORN was dressed in full "pimp regalia" when in actuality he was wearing a conservative business suit. ACORN lost government and private funding because of the incident and ended up disbanding.) The rush to "get in on" the attack on Sherrod says something about the polarization in this country—where right-wing, conservative, Tea Party racists are on the offensive, setting the terms and aggressively pushing their agenda, while the Democrats, including Obama, are on the defensive.

The Tea Party can carry signs and guns threatening Obama, spouting the most racist shit. The governor of Virginia can proclaim April as the "Confederate History Month" and defend the fact that his proclamation said nothing about slavery. (He then issued an "apology" about the "omission" when people calling him out on it refused to back down.) The Republicans can talk about honoring "Southern values" which amounts to a defense of slavery. And this is seen as acceptable political dialogue and discourse. That if one Black person even dares to tell the truth and says there is discrimination... "whoa," they shout, "you're being a racist."

Why is it that some get thrown under the bus.... but others get a free ride on the bus?

An important—and still extremely relevant work by Bob Avakian, "The Pyramid of Power and The Struggle to Turn This Whole Thing Upside Down" sheds much light on this. This work was taken from the question and answer section of Avakian's 2004 DVD, Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About.

Avakian describes the Republicans and Democrats as, roughly, representing two sections of the ruling class, sitting atop a metaphorical pyramid of society. He describes the kind of fascist movement and tactics that were going on at that point—including the links of that fascist movement into the military—and then goes on to say:

"[T]hese forces are quite willing to call into motion this fascistic kind of force that they've built up when they feel that they need it, and they're willing to bring it all the way into motion and turn this into a whole other kind of religious, fundamentalist, fascistic society if they feel that's where they need to go.

"On the other hand, here are the Democrats at the top of this pyramid (on the so-called 'left'). Who are the people that they try to appeal to—not that the Democrats represent their interests, but who are the people that the Democrats try to appeal to at the base, on the other side of this pyramid, so to speak? All the people who stand for progressive kinds of things, all the people who are oppressed in this society. For the Democrats, a big part of their role is to keep all those people confined within the bourgeois, the mainstream, electoral process...and to get them back into it when they have drifted away from—or broken out of—that framework."

The "narrative"—i.e. the lie of rightwing conservatives, which Obama not only panders to but reinforces, is: This is a "post racial" society. There is no longer any racism and Black people should stop their complaining. If they end up in prison, can't get a job, can't get a good education, etc. then it's their own fault, their own "bad choices"—not the system. The problem, the right wing says, is not that there is ongoing discrimination against Black people and other people of color. The real problem is reverse discrimination—"racism against white people" who have to suffer because Black people are given so many privileges in the name of righting wrongs that no longer exist. And they say, when Black people speak out against oppression and discrimination that this is "Black racism."

BUT ALL THIS IS A BIG LIE. Look at the kind of rampant, systematic and institutional racism that continues to exist in hiring, education, and housing ("The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System and the Revolution We Need," Revolution No. 144). Look at the way Black youth are so disproportionately stopped, frisked, arrested and murdered by the police.

In New York City, for example, an average of 20 people for every 100,000 residents in the Upper East Side (a wealthy area where Mayor Bloomberg lives) were arrested for misdemeanor marijuana charges in 2007-2009. In that same period, the arrest rate for the same offense was 3,109 people for every 100,000 residents in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that is 75% African-American. ("A Smell of Pot And Privilege In the City," Jim Dwyer, New York Times, July 21, 2010) And the Center for Constitutional Rights recently reported that the NYPD made a record number of "stop and frisks" in 2009—over 575,000—and that of those stopped, 87% were Blacks and Latinos, who comprise about 25% and 28% of the city's total population, respectively.

And what about the kind of discrimination against Black farmers that Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack himself mentioned in his public apology to Sherrod. He said there are tens of thousands of claims against the USDA—mostly from Black farmers but also from Latinos and women—charging discrimination in terms of things like being denied loans that are granted to white farmers, for buying seeds and equipment.

Yet the right wing is allowed to set the terms in mainstream political discourse with the lie that it is not racism, but Black people themselves, who should be blamed for their problems. And this is the lie that they tried to bolster with their attack on Shirley Sherrod.

As we pointed out in the article "The Right Wing Populist Eruption: Yes, It Actually IS Racism,"

"Think for a minute what it would unleash if Obama were to say what is obvious to almost every liberal—that yes, there is a huge and driving element of racism involved in this 'tea bagger' movement, that as a Black person in America he's known all along that this poison was going to surface, that this is part of and being folded into a whole fascist movement with support from the highest sections of the ruling class, and that anyone with a decent bone in their body should not only vociferously oppose this but put themselves on the line against it? And what would happen if some major figure in the Democratic Party were to then call people into the streets against these fascists? This is exactly the picture—the possibility of people actually getting into the streets to stand up to these reactionaries—that gives these Democratic politicians nightmares. Because once that genie is out of the bottle—once the oppressed people and the more enlightened people begin both to see and feel their potential strength and at the same time begin to investigate and debate why all this shit keeps happening and what can be done to really change it—then all kinds of possibilities for radical, and even revolutionary, change could open up and for every section of the ruling class this is a far worse nightmare than letting these fascists continue unimpeded."

3. The kind of virulent racism that FOX News puts out every single minute of every day is reinforced and being given strength—and it's put out as part of the legitimate discourse. It is not only seen as part of the debate—it is actually allowed to set the terms of the discussion as it did here over Sherrod.

But this has to STOP. People have to stand up and expose this for what it is. People have to call it out for what it represents in terms of this system and the whole history and present-day reality of the oppression of Black people. People have to take this on as part of standing up to things like the fascist anti-immigration laws in Arizona, the police murder of Oscar Grant, the mass incarceration of Black youth.

Sherrod has been very courageous, she stood her ground, she hasn't backed down. She recounted her response when she got the phone call telling her to resign: "I said, 'You know, the fight hadn't been in me before, but it's definitely here now, and you have not heard the last from me.' I really didn't know exactly what that meant when I said it. But I knew—I know I'm a fighter, and I knew at that point I would not take this lying down."

This is something to learn from in fighting against the oppression of Black people, as part of building a movement for revolution.

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond