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

shirley sherrodThe 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.

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,

  • 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 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


  1. says

    Brown seeks help for whistleblowers WOODFORD SUN STAFF REPORT Versailles native Paula
    Brown has played an influential role in getting State Government to offer greater protections to government WHISTLEBLOWERS. Brown, a former employee in the Lexington Fayette Urban
    County Government, has been working with state Rep. Jim Wayne (D-Louisville) to promote the passage of House Bill 185, a measure to protect government employees who report FRAUD and Mismanagement in State and Local Government. The act, if passed, would create a new section of KRS Chapter 61 to require public employers to post a notice of public employee rights under
    the “Whistleblower” statutes; amend KRS 61.102 to include supervisors within employing
    agencies to the list of entities employees can refer to; include other types of violations that
    may be reported and restrict Reprisal or Discrimination against employees who refuse
    to participate in employer practices which may violate a law or regulation; and amend KRS 61.103 to extend from 90 days to 180 days the amount of time an employee has to bring a civil action for injunctive relief or punitive damages after an alleged violation. On March 24, 2010, the bill received Unanimous Approval in the State Senate. Brown has also been involved in efforts to help raise
    awareness of the hazards GOVERNMENT WHISTLEBLOWERS face when reporting on the
    abuses they witness, appearing with DARLENE PRICE, a Federal Whistleblower, and others in
    several video releases on the Web site of YOUTUBE. Brown claims that as a result of her reporting on
    employee timekeeping errors she witnessed at work, she was OSTRACIZED and then FIRED from her job with the LFUCG Permits Department. “I’ve always been the type that’s been compelled to do the right thing, for whatever reason. This thing about speaking up and being a whistleblower … it’s the
    hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my lifetime,” Brown said. “And being a whistleblower, it
    puts you on the verge.” Browns efforts are aimed at getting people to understand that
    while Whistleblowers are often the best workers and problem solvers in their jobs, they often
    face obstruction from midlevel management and are given very few protections if they
    attempt to alert superiors to misconduct. (Editor’s Note: A Sun story in the March 11 issue mistakenly
    reported that Brown, who appeared in a joint interview with former U.S. Customs Agent DARLENE PRICE had been a participant in the same federal whistleblower case in which Price was involved, which alleged government corruption involving the shipment of illegal drugs into the United States.
    The Sun regrets the error.)

  2. says

    I found it interesting that Sherrod basically implied that obama is naive about race. I think she is true, and think it may have to do with being raised in Hawaii (where I now live).

    Hawaii is the only state with no racial majority – but rather a fairly equal mix of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Phillipino, Portugese, and White Americans as well as Native Hawaiians (who represent the smallest numbers). There are very few African Americans in Hawaii. Racism in Hawaii is deferred upon anyone who is white. Being non white, of any background, is preferential. So Obama grew up in the unusual culture where being black was preferential over being white. (I’m being grossly reductionist, but want to make the point that he grew up in the one state where being black was superior culturally to being white). I think he is grossly naive of Southern racism, and its deep, dark roots that are still strong. I hope he takes Sherod up on her offer. He seems to continually under estimate the power of Southern racism and they way it plays out in politics.

  3. Marshall says

    I suggest you look up the facts.

    I never listen to Rush but I did saw the Glen show where he took up for Sherrod after her boss fired her. No one on Fox said a word about her until she was already toast. Bill did comment after she was fired and before the full tape was released and said he was sorry for being too early.

    The guy that released the tape he was sent, only did so after the NAACP called for all the tea party racist to be fired. OK he did not have the full tape, but he had what he released for months. He was not going to use it but the NAACP action changed his mind.

    The world would be much better place if the progressive facts were really true.

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