THE SHERROD EFFECT
By Stephane Dunn, PhD.
Monday, July 26, 2010.
once again, “race & politics” is the sensational topic of the moment in America. It’s a familiar story about some politically incorrect language deemed racist and even worse it seems, reverse racism. Only the tale that Sherley Sherrod related at an NAACP Freedom Fund banquet about her encounter with a white farmer twenty-four years ago was hijacked by Andrew Breitbart. Even worse, Ms. Sherrod was forced to “resign” instantaneously. As she describes, Sherrod was asked to pull over on the side of the road and offer her resignation as requested by the ‘White House.”
The longtime civil rights organization that had honored her quickly condemned Sherrod. The whole shameful affair, exploding on a voting day in Georgia, says a lot about the problematic dramas playing out around race and politics in the media.
Neither Sherrod’s USDA superiors, the White House, or the NAACP invested in the little research that would have led to the white farmer in question and the full video of Sherrod’s tale and speech. If they had, the truth could’ve spared them the backtracking and the embarrassment of looking like what they appear: terrified of the right and a reverse racism charge.
President Obama has the unique distinction of being president while being black and therefore continuously suspect. While former white presidents presumably had no trouble with making unbiased decisions regardless of their whiteness, Obama must prove that his racial identification doesn’t impact his thinking or his decision making. It’s a futile struggle as his detractors and his conservative political foes have already branded him, some suggesting he’s at turns anti-Semitic and racist.
In recent years, the NAACP has grappled with its own PR problem battling internal woes and leadership issues as it struggles for an effective twenty-first century identity. Both Obama and the organization share a side of the same dilemma; both want to convey their commitment to helping diverse oppressed people and building coalitions across racial and religious lines but at the same time, the NAACP needs to still be a relevant voice for black people while Obama is fighting to be taken as a sincere for-everybody man and not look threateningly black. This makes them easy prey for a Sherrod debacle particularly in a technological era that allows any average person the wherewithal to manipulate images, sound, and time according to their political intent and allegiances.
The key is to avoid becoming merely reactionary puppets on strings and not be held captive by every potentially controversial clip or speech that finds its way on television or the web. It is too easy to get caught up in the continuous media play that holds race hostage to the political machinations of the moment. This also takes space and attention away from having useful public dialogues about contemporary racial problems and the insidious play of racial politics that has only intensified in the battle for political power post-Obama’s election.
With thanks to New Black Man
Stephane Dunn, Ph.D, MFA, is currently an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Morehouse College. She has also taught at Ohio State University. A scholarly and creative writer, she specializes in film, popular culture, literature and African American studies. She is the author of articles and commentaries and the book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (University of Illinois Press 2008). She can be reached at email@example.com.