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Shirley Sherrod and Race Realities In America: We All Need a History Lesson

Anthony Samad: America so badly needs a history lesson on race right now. Not necessarily to indict, but to enlight. Then maybe we wouldn’t as susceptible to episodes like Breitbart’s and other race baiters trying to gain Rush Limbaugh-Glenn Beck type notoriety.

The Shirley Sherrod controversy reached a crescendo last week when she appeared before 1,200 journalists at the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) convention in San Diego. We witnessed a kind of wisdom we hadn’t seen in a while, as it relates to a frank discussion about race realities in America.

shirley sherrod

Mrs. Sherrod is a lifelong activist from Southeast Georgia, who worked for the US Department of Agriculture to help poor people. She had witnessed decades of racial bias and discrimination against black farmers. She went into government work to help her community, and her people, counteract the discrimination black farmers were facing. When confronted by a white farmer with the same issue many black farmers faced, Ms. Sherrod was confronted with the reality of race in America.

The reality of race in America is, as Laswell said in 1939, “Who gets what, when and how?” Race (and racism) in America has always been about the establishment of the social pecking order by which economic resources are distributed. Having what whites have is the “gold standard” for what being equal is in America. Having more than what whites have has been hazardous to a black person’s health, as the social politic has always been about marginalizing black wealth (in the collective) as the main impediment to marginalizing equality.

Shirley Sherrod understood this. She’d witnessed whites in authority marginalize black farmers, causing them to lose their land and their wealth. As a black woman in authority, she confessed, she was confronted with the same dilemma. This is where Shirley Sherrod’s history lesson on race began, and where the rest of us learned.

A conservative white blogger named Andrew Breitbart, used a conservative cable network known for a near racist political ideology (FOX), with a biased media slant, which commonly plays to racial hostility and inflames white America’s racial fears. Breitbart manipulated a speech to an intended racial claim. Though we found out his story (and claim) was false, he played to white people’s biggest fear, that blacks in authority will impose the same discrimination on them that they had imposed on blacks for centuries. They know reciprocity is the law of nature. America reaps what it sows, for God is not mocked and Karma, while it may not be instant (as John Lennon called for), it is for sure. Shirley Sherrod gave the NAACP chapter a history lesson on how she resisted perpetuating racial revenge. She thought about it, but came to an understanding as to what her true mission was, helping poor people-black and white. That was the lesson.

Yet, Sherrod came into the middle of a national firestorm when Breitbart targeted her and her speech to charge “black racism.” Breitbart took a soundbite and made it fodder for racial controversy that almost everybody bought into, including the Obama Administration and, lo and behold, the National NAACP (the NAACP just can’t get out of the news).

Mrs. Sherrod brought her grandmotherly demeanor to NABJ and many revelations were made, the most significant of which was that the President needed a history lesson on race. After hearing her speak, one could conclude that we all need a history lesson on how we got to this point, the most racial point in America’s so-called, “Post-Racial Period.” Sherrod laid down four very fundamental premises,

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  • that people are good by nature and try to do the right thing most of the time;
  • that racism is real, racism is alive and it’s something we have to be constantly on the watch for;
  • there are race-baiters in our society that want to maintain the racial status quo in America, which is a resource based disparity that advantages whites and disadvantages most everyone else; and lastly
  • that we can’t jump to conclusions on anything racial until all the facts are known.

Sherrod didn’t claim all white people were bad, nor are they all good. Sherrod didn’t blame the NAACP, though she could have, nor did she suggest they were blameless—they weren’t the point of this issue. Sherrod didn’t blame all media, she blamed FOX. She even said she couldn’t blame all media because she would never be able to tell her side of this story if all media was as biased as FOX.

She saved the most accurate assessment for Breitbart in her analysis of what racism is today in America. She said she knew it was racism at its very premise and Breitbart had to know he was targeting her specifically to carry out his racial agenda, which almost worked. She was fired. Had there not been a call to listen to the whole speech, the context of the speech would have been lost and Sherrod’s denial -- that she hadn’t said anything racist -- would have been ignored. Like it’s been for centuries, before many a lynching, before many an execution, before many a firing where denials were ignored.

Sherrod announced that she would be suing Breitbart for his malicious act. Part of the problem is that anyone who speaks factually about race in America today is labeled a racist-- particularly by conservatives. Especially by conservatives whose near every policy move is motivated by race.

The deepest statement Sherrod made in this conversation was that “President Obama needs a history lesson on race,” and that he needs to come to Southeast Georgia to see for himself what conditions racial thinking has created. She is correct. There is no such thing as a “Post-Racial” America. There are only two periods in America; “Racial” and “Really Racial.” Really Racial periods were slavery and segregation. We’re living in a racial period that is trying to push into being really racial.

America so badly needs a history lesson on race right now. Not necessarily to indict, but to enlight. Then maybe we wouldn’t be as susceptible to episodes like Breitbart’s and other race baiters trying to gain Rush Limbaugh-Glenn Beck type notoriety. Pushing the “return to yesterday” is not without its history lessons. Shirley Sherrod taught us that.

Anthony Samad

Anthony Asadullah Samad

Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Politics. He can be reached at