The place once known as "Bad" Baker County, Georgia, Historian Taylor Branch explains in the first book of his three-volume history of the civil-rights movement, is where a rather infamous chapter in civil-rights history took place. It involves the establishment of a legal precedent adopted through the kind of pretzel logic typical of attempts at legal reasoning involving black people prior to the 1950s. An all-white federal jury convicted white Sheriff Claude Screws of conspiring to violate Robert Hall's civil rights when he murdered him. The Supreme Court, while contending the "defense was not pretty," nevertheless overturned the conviction on the grounds that prosecutors hadn't proved Screws had wanted to deprive Hall of his civil rights, as opposed to simply intending to murder him. Retried for murder, Screws and his accomplices were acquitted.
Baker County was where Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia USDA official who was forced out yesterday and denounced both by the administration and the NAACP after conservative activist Andrew Breitbart released a selectively edited video of her remarks at an NAACP gathering to suggest that she discriminated against a white farmer, grew up. It's where her father was murdered when she was only 17.
"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," Sherrod explains. "There were three witnesses to his murder, but the Grand Jury refused to indict the white men who murdered him." One could hardly blame Sherrod when she says that "growing up on the farm, my dream was to get as far away from the farm, and Baker County, as I could get."
"The older folk know what I'm talking about," Sherrod says.
Sherrod grew up in a system of racial apartheid in which the state was actively complicit in the murder of her father. It's not an exaggeration to say that for most of us, our prejudices never have so sympathetic an origin. Most of us develop our prejudices the same way we learn how to use a knife and fork to eat our food -- by watching other people and imitating what they do. Few of us have the kind of courage Sherrod has, to both recognize and overcome it. Still fewer who have stories about learning to do so are brave enough to share them. It's not just that Sherrod isn't a racist; it's that her speech is an example of the kind of compelling honesty and maturity on matters of race that is almost entirely absent in our national conversation.
On the night of her father's murder, Sherrod says she swore to help make the South a better place. "When I made that commitment, I was making that commitment to black people, and to black people only," Sherrod says. "But you know G-d will show you things, and he'll put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people." Sherrod's story is not, as Breitbart originally suggested, a triumphant
tale of getting back at whitey, applauded by the "racists" at the NAACP.
It is a story about how she overcame her own prejudice and realized
that America's racial drama -- as unique and compelling as it is -- is but a
part of a larger conflict between the haves and the have-nots. Sherrod,
who was working for a nonprofit at the time and not for the
USDA as was suggested, did end up helping a white farming family, Roger
and Eloise Spooner, who now consider
Sherrod "a friend for life."
Beyond Sherrod's personal tragedy, the more immediate context of discrimination in 1986 is also relevant. The USDA was being sued for decades of discrimination against black farmers -- in 1982 the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, during the non-farce phase of its history, found that discrimination was "a catalyst in the decline of the black farmer," according to PBS. A year earlier, the Reagan administration had decided to close the section of the USDA devoted to investigating civil-rights complaints. That office wasn't restored until the Clinton administration, and throughout the 1990s, the USDA was hit with lawsuits over its discrimination against black farmers that are still being resolved. When Sherrod said that in 1986, she was "struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland"; she was talking about the precipitous loss of black farms in the face of active discrimination from the U.S. government. As Ira Katznelson has noted, it's remarkable how often our discussion of race fails to take into account moments the entire engine of the state was geared toward active assistance to the exclusion of blacks, even when such matters are so directly relevant.
This is the context Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was referring to when, in explaining why Sherrod was fired, he said he was trying to "turn the page on the sordid civil-rights record at USDA," which draws a rather incredible equivalence between out of context remarks and decades of systemic discrimination on behalf of the U.S. government.
"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," Vilsack explained. This is our post-racial cowardice -- Sherrod need not have done anything wrong; what matters is that someone thinks she did something wrong. Farce. Cowardice. Vilsack should offer Sherrod her job back, but no one would blame her if
she didn't take it. As Jamelle Bouie wrote, the rush to condemn Sherrod by the administration and the NAACP shows just how cowardly we are when it comes to race -- we would rather be consistent than right, lest someone accuse us of hypocrisy. Is there a worse strain of vanity?
The video was released as a counterattack against the NAACP's resolution asking the Tea Party to purge the racist element within their movement, but in a larger sense this is really about the cost of frankly discussing racism so high that no reasonable person would ever attempt to do so. Sherrod's story isn't about anti-white racism; it's a story about overcoming her own personal prejudice, the kind of prejudice we find understandable because of her story but that we should be willing to forgive in ourselves and each other, given that none of us is immune. This is the mechanism by which "color blindness" destroys all avenues for actually mitigating the lingering effects of racism and American apartheid. The point of this smear was not to "spark" discussion of race. The point was to end it.
For all the sound and fury, Breitbart's video was nothing more than an alibi, an attempt to collectively exonerate the right from a charge of racism by turning it back on the NAACP. This is the precise origin of the oppositional culture developed by some conservatives in the aftermath of the 2008 election. It is broadly premised on convincing conservatives they face a similar kind of institutional racism black people have faced throughout history, while maintaining that the sole obstacle to black advancement is the same culture of grievance they're so desperate to imitate. Glenn Beck saying today's America is "like the 1950s except the races are reversed," isn't an observation; it's a demand for absolution. This is the same selfish white guilt rightly mocked when possessed by liberals, curdled into a bitter stew of defensive anger and epic self-pity. Yet even Beck thinks Sherrod was wronged.
Overcoming her own racial animosity and helping the white farming family at the center of her story, Sherrod says in the speech, taught her an important lesson. "Like I told, G-d helped me to see that it's not just about black people; it's about poor people," Sherrod says. "And I've come a long way. I knew that I couldn't live with hate, you know."
So many of us can't live without it.