As described in Ben Smith’s Politico article “So much for that ‘conversation’ on race,” the events leading to the firing of Shirley Sherrod, former Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), illustrates the continuing difficulty of engaging in meaningful and productive considerations of race in 21st-century America. The missteps that surround this incident illustrate the problems in the way that race is used in the public discourse. As illustrated in the past few weeks, broad-stroke and superficial accusations only sidestep the real issue of how race and ethnicity still operate to limit full opportunity for many Americans.
A nuanced and productive discussion of the incident could have started by recognizing the difficulties faced by family farmers of all races while acknowledging the particular plight faced by minority farmers. In fact, so serious is the history of racial discrimination in agriculture that the minority victims of discriminatory lending won a record-breaking settlement of more than $1 billion in a challenge to racially discriminatory lending practices by the USDA. That discussion might have led to a realization of the need to create policies which serve the common good that are fair, address injustices that still adversely affect minority farmers and assist a vulnerable population of farmers who provide essential goods to the nation but who live on the brink of bankruptcy.
Sadly, that discussion still has not occurred. Instead, the incident descended into a flurry of accusations and defensive responses, each of which served to obscure the larger issues of race. Although there are valuable lessons to be learned by considering the motives of those who released a video taken grossly out of context as well as the effect of the carelessness of those on both sides of the political spectrum who leapt to unwarranted conclusions without carefully examining the evidence, these lessons do not apply to the ultimate issue of how our nation can address the continuing effects of its racial legacy. There is a need to confront and label racism when it occurs, but the knee-jerk reaction to resort to the label of racism only results in defensiveness and ill-considered actions.
Most of the problems over this incident arose from the fact that the primary consideration of too many parties was either to find a way to accuse some person or group of being a racist, or to avoid being labeled as racist at all costs. Addressing the deeper problems of the effects of race, however, can only occur when we resist taking the easy, reflexive approach and instead take a careful and thoughtful look at the entire picture. Ms. Sherrod’s situation did not receive the careful consideration it deserved, and we have all suffered as a result.