I think it’s time for President Obama to give another “race speech.” Because in response to the very public and very undeserved firing of Shirley Miller Sherrod as the USDA’s Georgia director of rural development, a phone call isn’t going to cut it. In apology to Sherrod, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, “Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this have all made determinations and judgments without a full set of facts. I think that is wholly and completely accurate.” That is a far cry from Obama’s pledge when the Jeremiah Wright scandal threatened to derail his campaign that “this was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign—to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring, and more prosperous America.”
Back in 2008 I thought the election of Obama would usher in a new golden era of racial progress. He seemed to be a leader willing and able to use his symbolic authority and legislative power to usher in an age of nuanced discussions about the challenges that face our nation in dealing with racial discrimination and inequities. And yet, it might just be possible that the tenor of racial discourse in this country has gotten more corrosive since he took office. Ironic, I know, since Obama’s election as the first African-American president was seen by many as proof we’d reached Dr. King’s mountaintop. But as it turns out, we’re still climbing. It is simply mind-boggling that Sherrod was forced to resign via BlackBerry on the side of road based on evidence provided by Andrew Brietbart, the man behind the release of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now pimp and hooker videos. Nobody—not the NAACP nor Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack—seemed to have done the basic fact-checking that would have revealed the whole story was wrong. CNN did it with a single phone call to Roger Spooner, the white farmer Sherrod allegedly discriminated against. “If it hadn’t been for her, we would’ve never known who to see or what to do,” he said. “She led us right to our success.” Wow. After Skip Gates–gate, Obama urged the nation to use the scandal as a teachable moment. What should we be learning from this mess?
We already know that race continues to be such a hot button in this country that, time after time, it causes people to act first and apologize later. That’s why we’re so easily “snookered,” to quote NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, by poorly substantiated charges of racism. And Obama’s momentous election notwithstanding, we’re not anywhere near a post-racial nation. Not when we’ve somehow found ourselves at a state of affairs where frank talk about overcoming discrimination and giving up racist beliefs can be twisted into a fireable offense. Obama needs to tell us in the clearest terms why his administration seems so deathly afraid of accusations of racism. We deserve to know more about why no one even asked Sherrod for an explanation before the NAACP and agriculture secretary publicly condemned her as a racist in the harshest of terms. And I think we need to hear from the man who once said “if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.”
That’s what makes the bungling of what should have been a full-throated defense of Sherrod so truly dispiriting. The Obama administration was handed a perfect opportunity to show that racial discrimination can be defeated through the angels of our better nature—and the chance to upstage a political rival at the same time. Shirley Sherrod’s story is truly inspirational: her own father was murdered in a racially motivated crime that was never solved. And yet she works for same organization that discriminated against her family farm and thousands of other black farmers in the very lawsuit Vilsack mentioned when he announced her resignation. Hollywood couldn’t make this up. And while that may sound flip, I am completely serious. It is time for the president—not Gibbs, not Jealous, not Vilsack—to weigh in on the increasingly corrosive discourse surrounding race in this country, to tell us if he meant it when he said “We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle, as we did in the O.J. trial; or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina; or as fodder for the nightly news ... Or, at this moment ... we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’ ”
There are so many race hustlers out there, of all political stripes, who want us to be angry and afraid and incapable of rational thinking on the subject of race, because it advances their agendas. And while many of my peers may see this as merely an exercise in politics, I believe there are real issues at stake here—issues such as education, health care, and employment, issues that Obama once said were bigger than our petty differences. If he still believes that, then he needs to tell us that. Because this time, it’s not our teachable moment; it’s his.
Raina Kelley is a staff writer covering society and cultural affairs. Find her on Twitter.