Commentary: A lesson about race

It's been nearly two weeks since former U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign, and I'm still hopeful that some good comes out of this shameful saga.

To briefly recap, Sherrod, an African-American, was ousted after a videotape surfaced of a speech she gave at an NAACP event in Georgia. The intent of the edited video, released on the Web by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, was to show that Sherrod had discriminated against a white farmer years ago.

After examination of the full video, it was discovered that the edited portion was purposefully misleading (Sherrod plans to sue Breitbart). It turns out that Sherrod had a remarkable story to tell about overcoming bias, despite what had occurred in her life (her father was shot and killed by a white man). She stepped in to aid the farmer after having some initial misgivings about it. The farmer confirmed Sherrod's role in helping him.

The NAACP initially condemned Sherrod and later apologized, as did Tom Vilsack, the Agriculture Secretary, and President Barack Obama.

Clearly, no one emerged from the debacle unscathed. Neither the media, which failed to do its homework and report the real story, nor the White House nor the NAACP, which reacted in foolish haste, got it right.

But I wonder if, in the aftermath, we're squandering an opportunity to learn from the Sherrod case. When it comes to race, we are wading knee-deep in troubled waters.

Despite how far we've evolved as a nation, we have much to learn about the individuals and families in our midst who may have different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Many of us are loathe to have frank discussions about racial attitudes because we're afraid we may offend, or because we don't like reopening old wounds.

Others deny that a problem exists or believe it's pointless in what some have deemed a "post-racial" era. Besides, there's always the excuse that there are more pressing matters.

With Americans out of work, two wars and a massive oil spill, President Obama certainly has more than enough to tackle. But I am disappointed that he has not taken a more active role as our first African-American president to speak out about what divides us.

During the campaign, following the controversy surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's speech on race helped to clarify his background and the state of race relations in our country.

While in the White House, it seems that he's tip-toed around the issue, addressing it on the most superficial level, as in the case of the beer summit following the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his own home, or more recently on "The View."

The night of the election, Obama pledged to be the president of all the people, even those who didn’t like or vote for him, and he probably doesn't want to spend his entire presidency having to explain what it means to be the first black man to lead the country. He wants to be the president — period.

But as we've seen this past year — one punctuated by racist rants from some in the conservative camp — it can be a hurtful and ugly business with great political risk. Some on the right have stopped at nothing to brand Obama a racist who hates white people (the president was raised by a white mother and grandparents).

The Sherrod incident is a prime example of how race can be a convenient and powerful weapon to turn neighbor against neighbor and stoke fear, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Instead of letting it die another death in the 24-hour news cycle, why not face it? If we don't, we may be in danger of losing so many of the gains we have made, and that would be the biggest disgrace of all.


Julie Lynem is a columnist for the San Lius Obispo Tribune News. She can be reached by e-mail at: at jlynem@thetribunenews.com.