If you’ve been listening, watching, or reading the news at all this week you’re probably tired of hearing about the Shirley Sherrod fiasco by now. (In case you haven’t been watching, here’s what happened – an exposé style blogger, Andrew Breitbart, posted a brief video clip of an African American USDA official named Shirley Sherrod saying that she did not fully assist a farmer in need because he was white. Big hoopla, Ms. Sherrod denounced by NAACP and White House, forced to resign. Turns out the clip was taken out of context – the incident was decades ago, and Ms. Sherrod had recognized her own prejudice and helped the farmer to save his farm. More big hoopla, lots of apologies, Ms. Sherrod offered new job.)
This story has more layers than the onion I’m about to add to my potato salad (I really am making potato salad today). Why was the video posted? Why were leaders, both white and African American, so quick to speak and act? Why do charges of “reverse racism” rise to the top so quickly? Research shows that many whites feel racially victimized by affirmative action policies, among other things, and stories like this confirm and validate these feelings. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I’ve sensed that little, “Ah-ha, you see!” at stories of whites being treated unfairly – maybe some of you have sensed it, too. In terms of the African American leadership who jumped on the story, I imagine they felt much like my mother when JFK ran for office – although Catholic, she didn’t vote for him because she feared a Catholic President, in avoiding favoritism, would ultimately hurt Catholics.But I’d like to suggest we see the Sherrod story as a metaphor for how many of us view policies related to race. We saw a brief clip and passed judgment (that’s not fair! she’s racist!) without knowing what came before or after. We see a college scholarship that whites are not eligible for and pass judgment (that’s racist!) without knowing the context – the decades, the centuries of racism that excluded all but whites from institutions of higher education. We hear of a firefighters’ exam that was thrown out by the city of New Haven because African Americans failed, and shout, racist! without knowing of the history of discrimination in that city. Yes, fairness is important. But judgment without context can never be fair.