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Forget the Beer Summit. Shirley Sherrod’s Story Begins Our Conversation on Race

Sherrilyn Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, and is nationally recognized as an advocate in the areas of civil rights, voting rights, judicial diversity and judicial decision-making. Ifill is the author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century.

Usda-foodsIf you've watched the full video of the speech given by former USDA Georgia Director of Rural Development Shirley Sherrod at the NAACP Freedom Fund breakfast, then you know that a hideous injustice has been perpetrated against a thoughtful, smart, sensitive, reflective, principled African American woman. She movingly described her journey as a child who had to work in the fields in the deep South to becoming a representative of the USDA. The result of this journey was her recognition that "it's not about black or white, it's about the poor." As Sherrod told her audience, "we have to work together." It's the ultimate irony that she lamented at the end of her speech that "it's a shame that we don't have white people and black people in this audience."

In fact, Sherrod's speech should be required listening for those who want to understand the arc of race and racism in America and the possibilities for redemption in this country. The world into which Mrs. Sherrod was born is one that can poison you or strengthen you. Mrs. Sherrod chose the latter path. According to Mrs. Sherrod, her father was murdered by white men who were acquitted, despite the presence of eyewitnesses at the crime scene. Her family home was threatened by violent whites. Her mother protected the family home with a gun and with courage. Sherrod decided early-on to devote her life to helping the less fortunate. She learned that the less fortunate are black and white. And she learned and encouraged her listeners to hold themselves accountable and look beyond "black and white." Sherrod's story and her compelling telling of it at the NAACP breakfast should be regarded as the opening statement in the "conversation on race" that keeps getting hijacked in this country.

Book Cover for On the Courthouse LawnBut there's little interest in having a meaningful conversation. For many, having a black president is the beginning and end of the conversation. The Obama administration has remained invested in tamping down explicitly racial conversations (thus the "beer summit"). Those on the right are only interested in the kind of manipulative, high octane racial distortions that stir up their base and demonize the President. And so Sherrod's remarkable story, and her potential to be a key leader in helping us understand race, class and land loss in America is likely to be lost amidst the media's knee-jerk view that the only real news story is how this incident will affect the next horse race – in this case, the upcoming congressional elections.

There's another disturbing aspect to the treatment of Sherrod. It is part of a particularly ugly strain of venom reserved for women of color associated with the Obama administration. We have seen one demonized as "a Latina woman racist" (Newt Gingrich on then-Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor), another luridly described as "Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress" (NPR and Fox News' Juan Williams on First Lady Michelle Obama), and another cruelly derided as too fat to serve Surgeon General (Dr. Marcia Angell of Harvard on Regina Benjamin). Now Shirley Sherrod is the latest black woman in the Obama administration to be called out of her name. Worse, there's no beer summit in the offing for this black woman. She doesn't even get the chance to turn the other cheek. Instead, she was forced out of her job and even condemned by the NAACP before a full – or even cursory – investigation was done of the allegations made against her by right-wing incendiary blogger Andrew Breitbart.

Okay, mistakes were made. Now it's time to correct them. Thankfully, the NAACP has withdrawn its earlier statements condemning Sherrod and provided a sensitive and evidently sincere apology on its website. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack held an admirably candid press conference in which he apologized for his actions and praised Sherrod (who he repeatedly called "Shirley"). But there's more that should be done. Obviously, Sherrod deserves to have her job back. If you listen to her speech, you realize that the beleaguered USDA can ill afford to lose an administrator of Sherrod's long and deep experience with rural land issues and exceptional professionalism. Sherrod has reportedly been offered a "unique" position at USDA and is considering it. For the sake of the country, I hope she takes it.

But there's more. Sherrod-gate should serve as a wake-up call. To the White House. To the NAACP. To responsible journalists. To all of us. The "reverse racism" hustlers – Breitbart, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and others – who peddle in these irresponsible and toxic charges should be forcefully resisted at every turn. Every claim they make should be regarded with suspicion and fully verified before comment. Their motives are not irrelevant to how skeptically their charges should be reviewed. Their rhetoric is too often deliberately divisive and hateful. And sloppy. And the entire country suffers for the distractions created by these individuals who are committed to turning America backward on race. Lost in today's news focus on the Sherrod affair, for example, is the fact that the Congress finally voted yesterday to extend unemployment benefits for millions of out-of-work Americans. Our country cannot move forward unless we stand down the racial manipulation that keeps our eyes off the prize.