For those of us attempting to follow, assimilate, and interpret the story this week involving the remarks of Shirley Sherrod; it felt very much like swimming in a riptide. Now for those of you perhaps unfamiliar with the term, a riptide is a current that moves away from the direction of shoreward bound waves. Such a current is also known as an undertow, since it travels under the surface. Riptides are a great danger, as even the best swimmers can be drawn so away from shore by these swiftly moving waters that they find themselves unable to return to the safety of shore; and eventually they drown.
So too were we drawn hither and yon (and farther from the safety of the shore of reason) by unseen currents in this story. First the edited video released on Breitbart.com led many to believe that this was a story of racism on the part of Ms. Sherrod as she spoke of resenting, ill serving, and finally helping a white farmer in Georgia. Then those who took the time to look closer and listen to her speak more carefully of this as a seminal moment in her life, saw the direction shift as she told us of learning that this situation was not about race relations in this country.
The story quickly changed direction again however as the NAACP and the USDA quickly moved to censure Ms Sherrod, decrying the racism that their first interpretation led them to; with her federal government employers apparently demanding her resignation (at what level this demand may really have come from may yet in fact be a story).
The currents shifted again however, as those in powerful places either finally looked at the entire speech (or at least the entire originally aired video). Apologies were offered (along with renewed employment) and both Mr Breitbart and Fox News were blamed for the undertow of opinion caused by bringing any of this to light (I believe that this tactic is known as "shooting the messenger".) and for the apparently floundering attempts made by the government and NAACP to now swim to safety in these treacherous waters.
Now as the waves appears to have settled on the surface at least for the moment, those left are carefully attempting to make their way once again to safety of shore. They should remain careful however, for we are still left with some potentially uncomfortable currents that must navigated:
- While Ms Sherrod was apparently using this anecdote as a teaching moment, her speech did talk about turning the white farmer over to "one of his own kind", the kind of lightning rod of a phrase that could still be considered racist language when used in any speech, especially by one in government service. Many have been brought down by far less.
- Ms Sherrod's teachable moment taught her that such inequity was not a racist struggle, but a class struggle. This apparent epiphany moving her from potential racism to potential socialism does not appear to disturb many yet (and fear of falsely accusing Ms Sherrod of such sentiments at this point may prevent any follow up questioning on such beliefs). Such protection may not last forever however, unless the story disappears into the B section of the news.
- Ms Sherrod might have reached that teachable moment many years ago, but apparently the audience at this relatively recent NAACP dinner might still be looking for theirs, as they laughed and clapped at the ill treatment that she described performing on a person of another race. (This likewise seemed to draw little attention, either in fear of further racist charges or because of selective inattention.)
- This is the only speech to have come out of either Ms Sherrod or an NAACP event since the battle lines were drawn with the Tea Party movement. One might suspect that as time goes on, other equally embarrassing moments on the part of either may yet surface.
There is little doubt that many of these swirling currents developed as a result of the NAACP condemning racism in the Tea Party movement. There is likewise little doubt that some in the conservative media used selective inattention when watching and listening to this video to drum up their own particular brand of vitriol and feed red meat to certain rabid parts of their audiences.
On the other hand the NAACP and the federal government seemed to have a similar disability when reviewing the same material, drew many of the same initial conclusions, and tarred and feathered Ms Sherrod with apparently equal zeal and relish.
Finger pointing therefore, that will be attempted by both sides with vigor over the coming days, will probably come to little in the end. There is little doubt however, that riptides like the one that we have just experienced can be dangerous places to swim when you are caught in the middle of them, and perhaps none can be so deadly as those shark-infested waters that the term "racism" seems to create any time its used.
Perhaps all will become a little more careful when wading into these waters, and like Ms Sherrod in her video, use this as a teachable moment (though I do hate that phrase).