Soon, we will forget about Shirley Sherrod. But not the fallout from her smearing.
Sherrod might go back to USDA. She may give more speeches. But, while she has handled herself with aplomb, one could hardly blame her if she’s ready to step out of the Klieg lights.
As for us, we’ll promise not to rush to judgment next time, and to finally have that National Conversation about race. Maybe the president will even convene a Race Summit. Maybe, having already hosted last summer’s Beer Summit to atone for another hasty racial conclusion, he’ll seek the learning end of this Teachable Moment.
But one thing has changed.
Our politics increasingly resembles a cold civil war, and the Sherrod story was like the right’s first successful A-bomb test. Accusations of racism have long been the left’s, and only the left’s, most explosive weapon. No more.
I don’t make this observation with admiration or pride. I understand that this could turn out badly.
It’s not as if the right had unilaterally disarmed when it comes to political attacks. Far from it. But until now, charges of racism detonated only when dropped on the right.
George Allen’s “macaca” moment cost him re-election to the Senate. Trent Lott’s praise for Strom Thurmond cost him leadership of the Senate. Fabricated quotes, approving of slavery, pinned on Rush Limbaugh cost him a chance at partially owning the NFL’s St. Louis Rams.
Joe Biden called Barack Obama “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”; he became vice president. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid theorized that Americans accepted Obama because he was “light-skinned” and spoke “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”; he kept his job.
A real National Conversation about race would acknowledge that humans often say things that later make them wince, or worse, and that liberals like Biden and Reid aren’t the only ones who deserve the benefit of the doubt, of context, of grace.
In fact, I suspect most of us already reached that conclusion, or would have if not for the political point-scorers.
But there are points to score. And while I don’t condone what he did, I believe right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart when he says he posted the video of Sherrod to make a point about the NAACP, which days earlier condemned tea party groups for their “racist elements,” and that the effect on Sherrod was essentially collateral damage.
Breitbart is clear about his desire to turn the tables on liberal media and activist groups. That’s why he went after ACORN, and why it makes sense that he’d set his sights higher than an obscure bureaucrat.
It worked. Some of the people quickest to denounce others as bigoted, as we saw, do so a little too quickly.
But besides haste, we can detect some defensiveness. Did the administration’s rash reaction betray worries that it’s become vulnerable to charges of reverse racism? That when Obama presumes a white cop “acted stupidly” in arresting a black Harvard professor, and his Justice Department handles the New Black Panther Party with kid gloves, it undermines his post-racial appeals?
In any event, it’s clear that the left’s monopoly on these most powerful attacks is over. Perhaps, instead of retaliations that ensnare more Shirley Sherrods, we’ll recognize our mutually assured destruction. Perhaps we’ll pull back from the brink and let relations thaw.