Poor Shirley Sherrod. Two white men, both presumably educated, have abused this black woman in one way or another for their political purposes. Between these two, there is very little to choose. Only a once dirt-poor white North Carolina farm couple has risen to her defense as someone who helped them and whom they regard as a friend of the family. She and they alone have told the truth and done right.
Two facts must be rehearsed. The better known one is that Ms. Sherrod’s entire speech before the NAACP in 1986 is a narrative about her growth in wisdom about race. The lesser known one is that, just a year ago, an organization led by Ms. Sherrod and her husband won a $13 million lawsuit for government discrimination against black farmers, a case opposed and lost by the Obama administration.
Andrew Breitbart is no better than he should be, as they would phrase it in the eighteenth century, when referring to a member of the lower class. He is a political hack; for him, the manipulation of truth is an indispensable tool of partisan misrepresentation to serve his purposes. His explanation for using these film clips—he claims someone else, whom he cannot name, he claims, clipped them—is that he wanted to respond to the charges of racism leveled by the NAACP at the Tea Party movement. The ethics of this rejoinder—you, too—admits what he purports to deny. Even his “you, too” is a lie. And he subscribes to the two lies-make-a-truth school of ethics. His conduct points to something larger: the Tea Party, having no truth with which to defend itself from the charge of racism, resorts to lies instead. Such a strategy comes as no surprise to others who have witnessed its members’ and allies’ deception and dishonesty for political advantage at every turn.
Tom Vilsack is not as good as he should be. Vilsack, a white man from a conservative state, accepted at face value what he saw and heard, and perceived as discreditable about a black woman from a southern state. Vilsack raises the question of his racism in one of its standard motifs.
Speaking Tuesday, Vilsack offered two explanations, both entirely inadequate, for his peremptory decision. “Yesterday, I asked for and accepted Ms. Sherrod’s resignation for two reasons. First, for the past 18 months, we have been working to turn the page on the sordid civil rights record at USDA and this controversy could make it more difficult to move forward on correcting injustices.” This reason does not explain how a controversy, especially one involving a white male superior and a black female subordinate, makes moving forward on civil rights issues more difficult. Continuing this statement, Vilsack added, “Second, state rural development directors make many decisions and are often called to use their discretion.” This reason identifies no indiscretion, although it insinuates, without specification, that Ms. Sherrod exercised it improperly.
Of course, reflecting racism or not, Vilsack reacted to and acted on incomplete information. He was a fool to accept a discrediting film clip at face value. Incomplete information was not inevitable; indeed, it was avoidable. Vilsack might have asked for a copy of the complete tape. And he was a knave to disregard ordinary decency and legal rights and safeguards. He might have acted according to the most basic principles of due process: presume innocence and talk with the accused.
So, when a white male superior takes such impetuous, ignorant, and illegitimate action against an accused black woman subordinate, it is hard to imagine Vilsack’s good faith in trying to correct past racial injustices. Indeed, his acts perpetuate that “sordid civil rights record.”
A day later, after a storm of protest, Vilsack shows himself to be ethically challenged. “The controversy surrounding her comments would create situations where her decisions, rightly or wrongly, would be called into question, making it difficult for her to bring jobs to Georgia.” “Rightly or wrongly”? To him, it does not matter whether Ms. Sherrod’s remarks over 20 years ago (or at any time) were right or wrong; what matters is that they are controversial, that is, political.
As the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Vilsack shows himself to be a leader who betrays employees if they create controversy. It does not matter whether they are right or wrong. He shows himself to be both cowardly and corrupt in acting on rumor in the form of a film clip. The man is unfit to lead.
Given these facts, what are we to think of Obama and his White House, which may or may not have urged Vilsack to fire Ms. Sherrod? Though not involved, it has apologized, why? It apologized for what, exactly? It has taken action against whom, specifically? It has demonstrated its respect for a presumption of innocence and due process, how? It has shown its proclivity for political decisions without any effort to learn the truth or do right, why?
So far as I am concerned, time is up for Obama. However articulate, intelligent, and agreeable he may be, he has shown himself to be a moral weakling and coward. He has stood up for nothing. No stand against torture. No stand against spies snooping on citizens. No defense of administration employees attacked for their associates and backgrounds (how soon he forgets the attacks on his associates and background). No withdrawal from federal cases expanding presidential powers. No stand even in the one area in which he should have an inherent competence and acquired conviction: race. The man is unworthy of our respect and undeserving our vote. He has not transformed Washington, he has not transformed himself, but he has transformed me.