I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that we've seen a steady drumbeat of racial "incidents" over the last week or so. It began when NAACP delegates passed a resolution condemning extremist elements within the Tea Party and calling on Tea Party leaders to repudiate the "racist elements" in their movement. The initial reaction was almost completely negative: Dave Weigel -- who reports on the right wing -- called the resolution "a stunt" and the LA Times' Michael McGough said it was unfair given that it "implies that the extremists/bigots/bombers are a sufficiently significant component of the organization that such a gesture is necessary." Even former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin felt compelled to comment, calling the charge "false, appalling," and "regressive." The controversy died down by the end of the week, but not before Tea Party spokesman Mark Williams resigned after posting a deeply offensive fake letter from the NAACP to Lincoln on his website.
This week's controversy centered on Shirley Sherrod, an official with the USDA who was forced to resign today after a video surfaced of a speech she gave on Andrew Breitbart's Big Government website. In the speech, Sherrod talks about an incident that happened when she worked for an agricultural nonprofit and a white farmer came to her seeking help for bankruptcy. As she admits to the crowd, she was initially reluctant to help and didn't do as much as she could have to aid the farmer. But she soon realized she was in the wrong, she said, and went on to help rescue the farm from bankruptcy as well as work with many other white farmers. Sherrod's story may have been a little too revealing -- people tend not to talk about prejudices, even former ones, in public -- but it was fundamentally good-natured. As Sherrod herself explained:
The story helped me realize that race is not the issue; it's about the people who have and the people who don't. When I speak to groups, I try to speak about getting beyond the issue of race.
Brietbart deliberately cut the necessary context from Sherrod's remarks, leading viewers to think that she discriminated against white farmers while working at the USDA. As such, the NAACP issued a press release condemning Sherrod for her remarks, and the USDA asked for her resignation, despite the fact that there was nothing actually there to the story. In a statement released to the press, Secretary Tom Vilsack stood by his decision to accept Sherrod's resignation, saying that "the controversy surrounding her comments would create situations where her decisions, rightly or wrongly, would be called into question making it difficult for her to bring jobs to Georgia."
If there's anything that strikes me most about both incidents, it's that they completely vindicate Attorney General Eric Holder's assertion that the United States is a "nation of cowards" when it comes to discussing race. I understand that a lot of Americans feel really uncomfortable talking about race, but that's no excuse for the week we spent debating whether the NAACP is racist against white people, or the fact that the Obama administration punished a dedicated federal employee for the "crime" of speaking honestly about race. Instead of tackling these issues with maturity and candor, we spend our time rebuffing accusations of racism -- because there are no racists in America -- and shouting nonsense complaints about "reverse racism," while provocateurs like Andrew Breitbart and Glenn Beck distort our understanding of racism and prejudice.
It's been almost two years since America collectively patted itself on the back for electing a black president. And since then, we've proved conclusively that we are a nation of cowards when it comes to race. I'm just wondering when we're going to finally grow up?
-- Jamelle Bouie
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