The wrong lessons of the Sherrod story

Who cares which unfair snippet of her speech aired where and when? The issue is the 50-state GOP Southern strategy

Published July 30, 2010 2:30AM (EDT)

MSNBC's "Hardball" today might have seemed like a case of blind men describing an elephant, as host Chris Matthews, Gov. Howard Dean and I all appeared to have seen different Shirley Sherrod videos. And we wound up sparring over that (though Dean and I were on the same side), rather than the perfidy of Andrew Breitbart, on the day Shirley Sherrod announced her intention to sue Breitbart, the impresario of Big…Everything, but especially Big Propaganda, and a big, big smear of Shirley Sherrod.

It's too bad, because I think we could have had a good discussion otherwise (and Matthews and I did better in the second hour of the show.) The experience was a perfect case study of how Breitbart and the right wing noise machine manage to hijack the debate over race and politics in this country, even when they're wrong.

First, let me make one thing clear: According to Media Matters, and you all know they pay attention, Matthews was right about the first video posted by Breitbart. It did include Sherrod alluding to the epiphany she describes in detail later, about the fact that many issues aren't about black and white, they're about the haves and have nots. There are also versions of the video that don't include that quote. I had seen both versions; Dean had only seen those that didn't have the short allusion to her epiphany about the importance of "have nots" cooperating around economic issues.

But enough about that false issue: I went on "Hardball" Thursday to say, first of all, that if people who care about racial justice get sucked into debating the legal rights and wrongs of Shirley Sherrod's lawsuit, and exactly what the clearly truncated tape "revealed," we lose. I am not a lawyer, so all I can say is, Sherrod is a person who's been grievously wronged and defamed, who has a right to seek a remedy for an injustice. Lawyers can debate whether this is the correct way to do it. Dan Gillmor has a great post here.

I got sucked into a similar non-issue – was Shirley Sherrod wrong to call Fox and Breitbart "racist" -- on CNN Sunday. Something creepy is going on here. The real issue is, Shirley Sherrod was treated cruelly and unfairly by a right wing smear machine that already has several notches on its belt under the Obama administration. Now they are trying to change the subject from Breitbart's clear screwup, to their argument that everything Shirley or her civil rights movement leader husband Charles Sherrod has ever said, and ever may say, that may or may not be, or seem, "anti-white," can now be called "racist."

This is crazy. The fact is, black people were enslaved, they were disenfranchised, they faced legal and illegal discrimination, they have been beaten and lynched and murdered in every gruesome way, in the very recent past, and they now face enduring forms of social and economic discrimination (check out the story of how African Americans with good credit were pushed into subprime loans, if you doubt there's racism today.) We have also made great racial progress, and we now have a black president. Both those sets of facts happen to be true. We have to be able to talk about both of them.

But if we have to stipulate, now that we have a black president, that any black person who's ever said anything negative about a white person, for any reason, can now be called an anti-white "racist," we have lost the debate, permanently. There is actually a moron at the American Spectator who is attacking Sherrod because in her speech, she described a black man as having been "lynched," when he was merely beaten to death. Other right-wingers are going after statements by her husband, Charles. I'm sure both Shirley and Charles Sherrod can be found to have said something intemperate about white people at some point over the years. Her father was murdered by a white man, who was never brought to justice, despite eyewitnesses; Charles himself was repeatedly beaten and jailed for exercising his basic civil rights.

They still get to talk about white racism, folks – though both have lived lives that prove they don't believe all whites are racist, they want justice for everybody.

One thing I really wanted to say on Hardball, that just never came up, is this: In the speech for which she was vilified unfairly, Shirley Sherrod said something that I've said on Hardball, and that Howard Dean actually said, in a very different way, in 2003, when he suggested that Democrats should try to communicate with some of the guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. He was attacked for suggesting that by some on the left (including John Kerry and Dick Gephardt, his Democratic rivals for the presidential nomination.) I defended him on Salon, so it's funny that Dean and I are now getting attention for having called the smearing of Shirley Sherrod by Fox News and Breitbart "racist" on the Sunday shows.

But it's really not funny, or odd, at all: Dean and Sherrod have a similar message: Throughout our history, powerful forces have pitted black and white folks against each other, and white ethnics against each other, to obscure the fact that we have more in common than not, and to keep the have nots from banding together against the haves. That is a subversive, dangerous message to the people who have wealth and power in this country. It always has been, and it always will be. Maybe that's why no one is interested in talking about it.

I was hoping we could keep the focus on that message on Hardball today, but we got a little sidetracked.

Footnote: I'm glad Fox finally acknowledged at least a "breakdown," if not the full role it played in this media black op to smear Shirley Sherrod. Senior Vice President of News Michael Clemente confirmed what I said, and wrote, Sunday: – a news site -- as well as Fox Nation – a blogging site -- carried stories about Breitbart's false claims against Sherrod, before she was fired by the administration. I cannot believe they're still using the fact that O'Reilly taped before she resigned, but didn't air until after she'd resigned, to act like they wouldn't have pounced on Sherrod, on the air, if her firing hadn't made it a legitimate issue. But hey, their admission of a "breakdown" is progress at Fox.

Finally: While we're on the subject, I should also admit that I slipped on CNN Sunday and got a word wrong, with which the Lilliputians of the right are having a lot of fun. I told Howard Kurtz O'Reilly "ran the tape" trashing Sherrod before she was fired; I should have said "made the tape." Also on Sunday, I wrote a piece about "Fox's 50-state Southern Strategy." I should have made that "The GOP's 50-state Southern Strategy." I regret the error.


By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Fox News Howard Dean Race Shirley Sherrod