Commentary: A 'Sister Souljah' moment this wasn't

The White House got snookered on the Shirley Sherrod hoax. But that was partly due to the Obama administration's eagerness to refute the slur that it is hostile to whites.

The furor centered on a videotape posted on the Internet of Sherrod, a former official in the Agriculture Department, recalling an incident 24 years ago in which she was reluctant to help a white farmer seeking government assistance. The videotape, as posted, lasted just a little over two minutes.

On the tape, during a speech at an NAACP dinner, Sherrod describes the first time a white farmer came to her for assistance. At the time, she was working for a nonprofit rural farm aid group, and had dealt only with black farmers.

She noted that she was "struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land." As a result, she said, she "didn't give him the full force of what I could do."

And that is the tape that went viral overnight. It moved from the Internet, where it had first been posted by right-wing activist Andrew Breitbart, to Fox News and then on to the blogosphere. Fox's Bill O'Reilly, commented on the portion of the tape where Sherrod states that she "didn't give him the full force" of what she could do: "Wow, that is simply unacceptable and Ms. Sherrod must resign. The federal government cannot have skin color deciding any assistance."

Other critics labeled Sherrod a racist. But conservatives weren't the only ones throwing stones.

NAACP leaders were quick to condemn Sherrod's comments. And soon after the clip appeared on Fox, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack demanded her resignation, which she gave him.

But that was, by no means, the end of the story. NAACP officials soon produced the full 43-minute version of her speech.

As the rest of the speech makes clear, the reference to the white farmer was merely part of the explanation of an epiphany on Sherrod's part, an evolution in her thinking. She explains how she came to realize that "the struggle is really about poor people," not about race.

Even the white couple mentioned in the speech praised her: "We probably wouldn't have our farm today if it hadn't been for her leading us in the right direction," said Eloise Spooner of Iron City, Ga. "I wish she could get her job back because she was good to us, I tell you."

By Wednesday, most of the original critics, including Fox, had done an about-face and called on Vilsack to rehire Sherrod. A chastened Vilsack apologized profusely, admitting that Sherrod had "been put through hell," and offered her a new job at the USDA. (At this writing, she had not decided whether to accept).

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offered his own apology, saying the firing had been a mistake. On Thursday, Obama offered his own apology. Vilsack said the decision to fire Sherrod was his alone and that he had not been pressured to do so by the White House.

It seems unlikely, however, that the administration had no hand in this. Members of the president's staff, if not the president himself, no doubt sensed that this was a potentially volatile incident that they should try to squelch as quickly as possible.

But it may have been more than that. It is easy to imagine the White House viewing this as an opportunity to strengthen its credibility with moderate voters by firing a government employee who had admitted racial prejudice in dealing with white clients.

It would be a "Sister Souljah moment," like the one in which Bill Clinton criticized the hip-hop artist and activist for remarks she made about killing white people in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Clinton was campaigning for the presidency at the time, and used the incident to ingratiate himself with white voters.

The reaction of the Obama White House is, perhaps, understandable. The original posting of the out-of-context snippet by Breitbart, the recent over-hyping of the New Black Panthers and other similar incidents are part of a deliberate, cynical campaign to portray Obama as somehow alien to mainstream America and an enemy of white people. Vilifying Sherrod was meant to ignite those who still believe Obama is a secret Muslim, born in Kenya, who is plotting against white America.

But in this case, the White House jumped the gun, rising to the provocation. Waiting a day and digging up the facts would have prevented this public-relations debacle.

It also is worth noting that many members of the press also leaped to conclusions without investigating the situation first. They have a responsibility to get the story before running to the White House for a reaction.

Sadly, the result of this mess is likely to be more racial tension, more name-calling and less of the enlightenment Sherrod sought to share in her speech.


James Werrell is the Rock Hill Herald's opinion page editor. He can be reached by e-mail, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.