Last week, the conservative outrage machine tried to chew up Shirley Sherrod.
You are familiar with that machine if you have access to the Internet or Fox News. As the name implies, it exists to stoke and maintain a state of perpetual apoplexy on the political right by feeding it a never-ending stream of perceived sins against conservative orthodoxy.
While the machine will use any available fuel (health care, immigration, Muslims) to manufacture fury, it has a special fondness for race. Specifically, for stories that depict the God-fearing white conservative as a victim of oppression.
So Sherrod must have seemed a godsend to blogger Andrew Breitbart.
Last Monday, he posted an excerpted video of Sherrod, an African-American employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, telling a NAACP audience how she once hesitated, because he was white, to help a farmer stave off bankruptcy. “Evidence of racism,” Breitbart sniffs righteously in an accompanying post.
Except that it wasn’t.
“After” the NAACP pronounced the video appalling, “after” Bill O’Reilly called her words unacceptable, and “after” the USDA demanded her resignation (all have since apologized) the truth came out, via the full video.
It turns out Sherrod is a daughter of Baker County, Ga., which she describes as having been the sort of proudly unreconstructed place where a black man might be murdered by a white one and despite three witnesses, the grand jury would decline to indict. In 1965, Sherrod’s father was that black man, one of many.
So there she is in 1986, working at a nonprofit agency established to help farmers, and in comes this white farmer she finds condescending. She didn’t do all she could’ve for him, she told the audience. Instead, she handed him off to a white lawyer, figuring one of “his own kind” would take care of him.
Which would indeed be appalling and unacceptable, except that when the white lawyer failed to help that farmer, Sherrod resolved to help him herself, to overcome the bitterness and bias of her own heart. That farmer credits her with saving his farm.
Breitbart used a snippet of video to misrepresent her as a black bureaucrat bragging of how she stuck it to the white man. Sherrod’s point was actually about reconciliation, redemption, learning to embrace the wholeness of humanity.
Invited by CNN to explain the dissonance between his video and the truth, Breitbart chose instead to reiterate his charge of “racist” sentiment. For Breitbart, the video was an attempt to embarrass the NAACP, because it recently passed a resolution denouncing racist elements in the tea party movement. This is not about Sherrod, he insisted, though she might beg to differ.
In the interview, Breitbart came across as not overly concerned with “truth,” and much less with racial injustice, except insofar as it can be used to further his cause.
And isn’t it telling how often conservatives will discover their burning concern over race just when it becomes useful to them? We saw this last year. In a nation where one state may soon require Latinos to show their papers, conservatives hyperventilated over the “racism” of Sonia Sotomayor extolling the virtues of a “wise Latina.” Now, against the backdrop of an Agriculture Department that long ago admitted to decades of discrimination against black farmers, Breitbart weeps over the “racism” of Shirley Sherrod refusing to assist a white farmer — right up until she did.
It is probably useless to say Breitbart should be ashamed. There is little evidence he possesses the ability. But Sherrod is pondering a defamation suit, and a judgment in her favor might help him fix that defect.
May she win big. And may the outrage machine choke on the bill.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. firstname.lastname@example.org