KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The week-long debate over racism in politics on Tuesday snarled rapidly and strangely.
An African-American woman from Georgia
lost her federal job Monday over what at first appeared to be racist
comments in a video clip. But on Tuesday she said the comments were
misconstrued — she was really talking about racial reconciliation years
ago when she worked for a nonprofit agency.
As a result, the NAACP, which had first denounced the woman, reversed itself and called on the Obama administration to rehire her.
According to the Associated Press, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement that his group was "snookered" into believing that USDA employee Shirley Sherrod expressed racist sentiments at a local NAACP meeting earlier this year.
The USDA was not backing down, though.
The whirlwind developments were the latest in a turbulent week that began July 13 with the passage of a resolution at the Kansas City convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The resolution called on all people — including "tea party" leaders — to condemn racism within the tea party movement.
Tea party leaders quickly responded that the
movement was not racist, although some acknowledged racist elements
might be found on the fringe.
Four days later, the National Tea Party Federation, a coalition of tea parties across the country, expelled the Tea Party Express group and its spokesman, Mark Williams, after Williams wrote a racially charged blog post.
The debate shifted gears on Monday, when the video clip surfaced of Sherrod.
Conservative Web site publisher Andrew Breitbart
originally posted the two-and-a-half-minute video clip at
biggovernment.com, calling it "evidence of racism coming from a federal
appointee and NAACP award recipient."
The site gained fame last year after releasing video
of workers for the community organizing group ACORN counseling actors
posing as a pimp and prostitute.
The Sherrod video spread like wildfire on television, talk radio and the Internet.
The video shows Sherrod giving a speech at an NAACP banquet on March 27 in Douglas, Ga.
She tells about "the first time I was faced with having to help a white
farmer save his farm." She said the farmer "took a long time talking,
but he was trying to show me he was superior to me."
"I know what he was doing," she said, "but he had to
come to me for help. What he didn't know, while he was taking all that
time trying to show me he was superior to me, I was trying to decide
just how much help I was going to give him. I was struggling with the
fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was
faced with having to help a white person save their land. So I didn't
give him the full force of what I could do."
Sherrod said she took him to a white lawyer with training in farm bankruptcy.
"So I figured if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him," she said.
The clip ends as Sherrod begins talking about how she came to realize that the issue actually was about class, not race.
Sherrod told The Associated Press that she was forced to resign her position as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Georgia director of rural development.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement Monday confirming Sherrod's resignation.
"There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA,
and I strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person,"
Vilsack said. "We have been working hard through the past 18 months to
reverse the checkered civil rights history at the department and take
the issue of fairness and equality very seriously."
The farmowners Sherrod had allegedly discriminated against told CNN and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she had helped them avoid losing their farm. Elaine Spooner, now 82, called Sherrod a "friend for life."
The NAACP issued its first statement Monday night, calling Sherrod's actions shameful.
"Racism is about the abuse of power," Jealous said. "Sherrod had it in her position at USDA. According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race."
But the NAACP backed away from its first take on Tuesday.
Jealous said Breitbart deceived millions of people
by releasing only partial clips. He said the full video makes clear
that Sherrod was telling a story of racial unity.
Breitbart said in a CNN interview the video was not about Sherrod.
"This was about the NAACP attacking the tea party, and this is showing racism at an NAACP event," he said.
Some tea party activists told McClatchy Newspapers on Tuesday that they didn't know what to think of the case.
"We need to see what happens," said Christina Botteri, a founding member of the National Tea Party Federation. "If there's more to this story, it needs to come out, and we need to let that happen.
"This is a very sensitive time. If we're going to
speak about these things, we need to do so in an open, good-faith,
full, frank and honest way."
Botteri said the racism debate had distracted the country from other important issues.
"It's unfortunate," she said.
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