At the end of a long painful week, Shirley Sherrod’s been offered a new job with the USDA’s Office of Civil Rights and Community Outreach. She’s still considering, though, and who can blame her?
In an interview on Good Morning America Sherrod said Thursday that she wasn’t ready to accept Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s job offer. She said she wanted to hear more from the Secretary and his boss. She wants to know that the President is "fully behind" her." "I would hope that he is…" she said. "I would love to talk to him."
And that’s where we’re at. Yesterday in our studio, Harry Belafonte noted that we don’t have a national conversation about race, we have a confrontation. People from different races still don’t know one another. As he put it, in an interview with ColorLines: "The person from whom you’re thinking of taking life, or land, have you heard their story, have you sung their song?"
While the race- like the red-baiting by the Right- is the most obvious crime in the Sherrod story, the question of who believes whom and why, comes next. It may even be a bigger problem — after all, it’s only because of misplaced trust — that the baiting works.
Tom Vilsack, in his apology to Sherrod Wednesday, said he didn’t think before calling for resignation. But that’s not quite true. He did think. And he chose to believe the baiters first. That’s the first problem. Why did they, not she, win his first gut-level confidence?
Melissa Harris-Lacewell pointed out on MSNBC Wednesday night, had Vilsack known Sherrod’s history better — he’d have known that her father was shot in the back by a white farmer when she was 17; that she had history with the civil rights movement. That her husband worked with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and he’d have known of her involvement with a lawsuit, recently settled, representing black farmers, long dispossessed as part of the post-Reconstruction backlash against emancipated blacks. If he’d understood those things, if they’d resonated — he’d have known they made her a perfect target. If he’d known that — and felt it — there’s a chance that even at the gut-level, he’d have heard an echo of past, similar fabrications — not a fact.
Indeed, if the entire USDA heard and felt that history, they’d not have dragged their mostly-white feet so long in getting black farmers justice.
Eric Holder was right. We’re still a nation of cowards on the issue of race. But here’s another opportunity to grapple with it. We don’t need a debate over whether we’re post-racial — clearly that’s settled. As is the matter of whether the Fox News Channel is a journalistic project.
What we need now is what Sherrod’s asking for from the president — time to talk. We need true conversation, that starts with learning one another’s histories. Not the whitewashed sort that Texas and Arizona textbooks want to teach, but our real histories – and why they matter. It’s not just a question for the President. It’s for all of us. Do we as a nation have Sherrod’s back?