Many who voted for Barack Obama did so in part because they felt the country was ready for a courageous, inspiring African American president who could help heal the racial divide.
The country was indeed ready. But in retrospect a better person for the job would have been Shirley Sherrod.
As most of you surely know after the past week's media frenzy, Sherrod resigned from her position as Rural Development Director in Georgia for the U.S. Department of Agriculture after coming under pressure from the White House when a heavily edited video appeared of a speech she gave to a Coffee County NAACP banquet.
In the edited version released to the media by a conservative blogger, Sherrod appears to endorse reverse racism in making professional decisions. But when you see the full, unedited version, it's clear that the opposite is true:
Against the backdrop of the murder of her father by a KKK member and the subsequent burning of a cross on her front lawn, she described a personal transformation which resulted in her overcoming her own prejudices, forgiving others their prejudices, and going out of her way to help white farmers hold onto their farms.
The White House and the USDA didn't wait around to see the full video. In an act that almost gives "thrown under the bus" new meaning, within hours of the edited video hitting the internet, Sherrod -- who was in the car driving from the West Point Kia plant to Athens -- was asked to pull off onto the side of the road and text in her resignation.
The administration which took a year to get its act together on health care reform and two months to show a sense of urgency about the Gulf oil spill showed lightning-quick reaction time in getting rid of a problematic African American female civil servant in rural Georgia. The audacity of hope, indeed.
As of this writing, Sherrod has been given apologies from USDA head Tom Vilsack and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, but still hasn't made a decision on whether to accept a new position offered by the USDA.
As shoddily as Sherrod's been treated, some good can come out of this incident, especially now that the full, unedited video is available. Because the line that Sherrod really crossed didn't have to do with racial equality -- it had to do with economic equality.
America is a most forgiving nation of almost any kind of peccadillo: Adultery, prostitution, drunk driving, manslaughter, substance abuse. Even pedophilia, given the comparatively muted reaction to a multitude of grotesque Catholic Church scandals and cover-ups.
But there's one thing you're never, ever allowed to get away with in America, one thing for which the media will not grant you the redemption story that is de rigueur for almost every other transgression:
You're never allowed to point out that our entire system is based on the haves playing the have-nots against each other.
Racial controversies, religious disagreements, partisan quibbles -- all are essentially for show, a way to keep the have-nots at each other's throats so the haves can continue with business as usual. It was always thus.
This is Sherrod's essential message in the full video, and if any good comes out of this it will be that this message will finally get its place in the larger discussion.
Thing is, once the have-nots wake up and realize they're being taken, it's game over for the haves. The haves realize this, and are determined to never, ever let that happen.
Remember that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't targeted by the FBI in earnest for advocating voting rights for black people, nor for protesting the Vietnam War.
Astute students of American history will remember that the real government heat against MLK wasn't turned up until he proposed a "Poor Person's March" on Washington: a million poor people of all colors -- not just African Americans -- protesting not electoral or racial inequality, but economic inequality.
Needless to say, he never lived to see that happen.
While I'm certainly not comparing her to Dr. King directly, Sherrod is a remarkable citizen advocate in her own right, as anyone who's seen her lucid, insightful interviews over the past few days can attest. She is honest, warm, unpretentious, and most importantly has an unerring instinct for breaking down an issue to its essential nature.
I believe her comments in the infamous video are important and worthy of wider dissemination, so I've taken the liberty of excerpting a sizeable portion of the video transcript below. It's very much worth reading:
"The first time I was faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm, he -- he took a long time talking, but he was trying to show me he was superior to me. I know what he was doing. But he had come to me for help. What he didn't know while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him.
"I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So, I didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough so that when he -- I -- I assumed the Department of Agriculture had sent him to me, either that or the -- or the Georgia Department of Agriculture. And he needed to go back and report that I did try to help him.
"So I took him to a white lawyer that we had -- that had...attended some of the training that we had provided, 'cause Chapter 12 bankruptcy had just been enacted for the family farmer. So I figured if I take him to one of them that his own kind would take care of him.
"That's when it was revealed to me that, ya'll, it's about poor versus those who have, and not so much about white -- it is about white and black, but it's not -- you know, it opened my eyes, 'cause I took him to one of his own and I put him in his hand, and felt okay, I've done my job. But, during that time we would have these injunctions against the Department of Agriculture and -- so, they couldn't foreclose on him. And I want you to know that the county supervisor had done something to him that I have not seen yet that they've done to any other farmer, black or white. And what they did to him caused him to not be able to file Chapter 12 bankruptcy.
"So, everything was going along fine -- I'm thinking he's being taken care of by the white lawyer and then they lifted the injunction against USDA in May of '87 for two weeks and he was one of 13 farmers in Georgia who received a foreclosure notice. He called me. I said, "Well, go on and make an appointment at the lawyer. Let me know when it is and I'll meet you there."
"So we met at the lawyer's office on -- on the day they had given him. And this lawyer sat there -- he had been paying this lawyer, y'all. That's what got me. He had been paying the lawyer since November, and this was May. And the lawyer sat there and looked at him and said, "Well, y'all are getting old. Why don't you just let the farm go?" I could not believe he said that, so I said to the lawyer -- I told him, "I can't believe you said that." I said, "It's obvious to me if he cannot file a Chapter 12 bankruptcy to -- to stop this foreclose, you have to file an 11. And the lawyer said to me, "I'll do whatever you say" -- "whatever you think" -- that's the way he put it. But he's paying him. He wasn't paying me any money, you know. So he said -- the lawyer said he would work on it.
"And then, about seven days before that man would have been sold at the courthouse steps, the farmer called me and said the lawyer wasn't doing anything. And that's when I spent time there in my office calling everybody I could think of to try to see -- help me find the lawyer who would handle this. And finally, I remembered that I had gone to see one just 40 miles away in Americus with the black farmers....
"Well, working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't, you know. And they could be black; they could be white; they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people -- those who don't have access the way others have.
"I want to just share something with you and...I think it helps to -- it -- you know, when I learned this, I'm like, "Oh, my goodness." You know, back in the late 17th and 18th century, black -- there were black indentured servants and white indentured servants, and they all would work for the seven years and -- and get their freedom. And they didn't see any difference in each other -- nobody worried about skin color. They married each other. You know, these were poor whites and poor blacks in the same boat, except they were slaves, but they were both slaves and both had their opportunity to work out on the slavery.
"But then they started looking at the injustices that they faced and started then trying -- you know, the people with money -- you know, they started -- the...poor whites and poor blacks who were -- they -- you know, they married each other. They lived together. They were just like we would be. And they started looking at what was happening to them and decided we need to do something about it -- you know, about this. Well, the people with money, the elite, decided, hey, we need to do something here to divide them.
"So that's when they made black people servants for life. That's when they put laws in place forbidding them to marry each other. That's when they created the racism that we know of today. They did it to keep us divided. And they -- it started working so well, they said, "Gosh, looks like we've come up on something here that can last generations." And here we are over 400 years later, and it's still working. What we have to do is get that out of our heads. There is no difference between us. The only difference is that the folks with money want to stay in power and whether it's health care or whatever it is, they'll do what they need to do to keep that power, you know. It's always about money, y'all."
There in those 11 paragraphs are contained more essential truth, more real honesty, more pragmatic calls for action than in all of Barack Obama's vague exhortations to bipartisan collegiality and racial harmony.
For there can be no bipartisanship without equality, no harmony without fairness, no peace without justice.
Typically whenever someone points this out, someone else -- almost always someone to whom life has been very good -- calls it "class warfare."
The class warfare gambit is a Pavlovian response at this point, something you hear every day on the corporate cable channels from some coiffed talking head in response to any straightforward description of the painfully obvious wealth disparity in America.
Yet what do you call it when Wall Street bleeds America almost to death but ends up making even more money than before, courtesy of bailouts from taxpayers who are losing their jobs and being asked to undergo cuts in basic services, cuts in education, and soon, cuts in Social Security?
All to maintain the extravagant lifestyle of those they've bailed out?
Is that not the very definition of class warfare? Indeed of an epic victory in class warfare?
The next time you hear some highly-paid TV pundit wave the bloody shirt of class warfare, the next time some politician tries to polarize along racial, cultural or religious lines, remember Shirley Sherrod's simple words:
"It's always about money, y'all."
President Obama should take special notice as well, and take a lesson from this modest and intelligent woman who shows us what true leadership is all about.
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