The decision to fire Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod–an action Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has now rescinded–is clearly part of a larger debate about discrimination and racial sensitivity in the public sphere.
It’s also evidence that hopes so often expressed during the 2008 presidential campaign that Barack Obama would lead the country into a “post-racial” future have thus far gone unrealized. The controversy has brought up complaints about past government discrimination against African-Americans and highlighted a feeling among some whites that the administration is biased against them.
Charges of Anti-White Bias
But some conservatives see the Sherrod controversy as evidence of a different theme–an administration bias against whites. In recent days, there has been a growing chorus of complaints about a Justice Department decision last year to scale back voter intimidation charges against members of the New Black Panther Party.
Jared Taylor, editor of American Renaissance, describes himself as a “race realist” and advocates abolishing immigration and anti-discrimination laws. He says it’s clear that Sherrod’s comments were taken out of context. Nonetheless, he says they tell an important tale.
“Practically nobody in America had trouble believing that this black employee of USDA would take this extremely race-based view,” Taylor says. “That’s the significance of this story. It seemed entirely plausible to most Americans that a black employee would have this view of how she should do her job.”
Challenging Race-Based Policies
It’s not a fantasy for whites to feel discriminated against by government policy, says George R. LaNoue, a political scientist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who studies civil rights cases. There are lots of government contracting and business programs for which white males need not apply, he says.
“It isn’t just a feeling. In terms of government contracts, it’s a fact,” LaNoue says. “We’re talking about lots of money, and billions of dollars at stake.”
Whites Adopting Civil Rights Rhetoric
Some whites have adopted the rhetoric of the civil rights movement in complaining that they are being discriminated against. That has offended many traditional civil rights activists.
Tea Party Tension
Steinhorn [Leonard Steinhorn, a communications professor at American University and co-author of a book about racial integration] says that Breitbart’s post about Sherrod’s comments was “cynical,” an attempt to use race to score points within a polarized debate. Breitbart himself has made clear that his target was not Sherrod but the NAACP. Sherrod made her remarks at an NAACP event.
Obama: Not Post-Racial
The fact that Biden weighed in on the NAACP-Tea Party dispute points up a source of frustration for the White House. Race is one of the Obama administration’s least favorite topics, yet inevitably it keeps coming up.
One thing that everyone seems to agree on, despite the very different prisms through which they view and describe discrimination, is that the United States is still far from its “post-racial” future.
“We continue to deceive ourselves in America that the race issue has been settled,” says Gary R. Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association.
“This notion that we’re all going to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ that’s pure fantasy,” says Taylor, the American Renaissance editor. “Racial loyalties are part of human nature.”