Last week, the political news scene had one of its regular (and increasingly frequent) nervous breakdowns over the Shirley Sherrod non-scandal scandal. It was another example of news media not doing its homework and politicians and pundits racing to judgement without the facts in an effort to beat the pace of the news cycle.
For those not paying attention, video surfaced of this African American woman, currently an employee of the USDA, speaking at an NAACP function and her remarks were excerpted by right wing media hacks to make it appear that years ago she had denied aid to a Caucasian farmer based on racial tension between them. After the excerpt went public, Sherrod was immediately forced to resign but within days the full tape aired, showing that she did in fact help the farmer and in her speech she was using her own feelings of racial resentment as an example of what not to do. Her acceptance of a new position is still pending.
There is a lot to get upset about in this debacle, but Melissa Harris-Lacewell has written this piece for The Nation about it, finding the optimistic side of the story. Harris-Lacewell writes:
Do not miss this: when Shirley Sherrod's video clip was first released to the mainstream press, the NAACP denounced her; the USDA, with complicity of the White House, fired her; the white farm family against whom she had supposedly discriminated jumped to her immediate and vigorous defense. These white farmers were the first to speak on her behalf. While others were saying she should be ashamed of herself, they loudly declared her an ally and a friend for life. The defense of Mrs. Sherrod came most effectively and fully from the white farming community. She had been their ally for years. They did not hesitate to return the favor.
The roller coaster of this story and the sentiments it has stirred provoked my own sense of the rut that race relations and popular racial discourse have become trapped within.
America has moved very far in a few decades. To put it in some perspective, when my parents were born (in the post-war years), whites and blacks could not drink at the same water-fountains and lynchings still occurred. Now we have an African American president and interracial relationships have been largely normalized. That isn't to say that racism is gone but rather to say that the bell curve has shifted; the kinds of hideous racism that were normalized into the everyday have been largely driven to the margins of society.
This ought to give us a sense of pride, and rightly so. But the civil rights movement that had burned so bright and hot in the 1960s was largely diminished by the end of the 1970s. Important and permanent changes had been made, and although they had provided the basics (voting rights, equal protection under the law, etc.) the long term work of deconstructing institutional racism was left. And that is pretty much where we've stayed ever since.
Racism is America's most sensitive issue, the source of some of the ugliest moments of our national history, complicated by America's sense of being a "city on the hill." It is hard to square those two things together and our attempts to do so (especially in national and popular media) often succumb to an either-or fallacy in which America is either a hypocritical nation of false hopes or it is the beacon of national and cultural perfection. Of course neither of those is true and the absurd absolutes polarize people into ideological camps, unable to communicate.
What Harris-Lacewell's remarks point to are the positive: that among Americans there is generally a good will and a desire for reconciliation. But in order to get there, we're going to have to face some of the ugliness and we're going to have to give up this unattainable illusion of perfection, either for some post-racial utopia or of a nation without a blemish in its character or its history.