From the Belly of the Beast: Racism alive and well in the USA

The firing of African American Shirley Sherrod from her job with the Department of Agriculture, where she worked to help the rural poor for decades, has again brought to the fore the oppression of black people.


Protest outside the Department of Agriculture building.
Washington, July 21.

She was fired by department head Tom Vilsack for being a “racist in reverse” because of a speech she made last March to the NAACP in Georgia. The occasion was the 45th anniversary of the murder of her father by a racist white man. Sherrod had grown up in Baker County, Georgia, ruled by a notorious racist sheriff, who was nicknamed “Gator”, a reference to an alligator, known for his viciousness. “Black men were routinely murdered there but the guilty were never brought to justice. As Sherrod recounted [in her speech], not even three witnesses to her father’s murder could persuade the grand jury to indict the white suspect”, Frank Rich observed in the New York Times.

Someone named Andrew Breibart created a video of a short excerpt of her speech, which purported to demonstrate that 24 years ago she had refused to help a poor farmer because he was white. The video was played on Fox News, which used it to portray the NAACP as racist against white people, and demanded that Sherrod be fired.

Vilsack immediately did so. He didn’t even offer the courtesy of a meeting with her, but called on her cell phone while she was driving to demand she resign. She was forced to go to the side of the road and text her resignation.

The White House denounced her. Even the national NAACP joined in. Then the full text of her speech became known. She had indeed said that she had initially felt hostility toward the white farmer (the short excerpt played on Fox), because black farmers had been treated far worse. But, she explained, she then understood that poor white farmers and poor black farmers had more in common than what separated them, and she went to bat in defence of the white farmer. So her speech was exactly the opposite of what Fox News claimed it was.

The white farmer and his wife came forward to praise Sherrod for all she had done to help them. They met Sherrod in an emotional embrace captured on TV. The NAACP apologised, claiming that Fox had “snookered” them. The Obama White House then did likewise. A reluctant Vilsack took his time to do the same.

Out of touch

That Obama and the national NAACP could be “snookered” showed how out of touch with the history of the civil rights movement they are. Her name alone should have given them pause to check the facts before they stomped on her. Her husband, Charles Sherrod, was a leading member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNVCC), the cutting edge of the movement in the 1960s. He was imprisoned because of his work. His name is known to anyone familiar with the movement, and should be known to all black leaders.

After her father was murdered, Shirley, aged 17, first thought of fleeing the apartheid south. But then she decided to fight the system and joined the movement. That’s where she met Charles Sherrod. Together they worked to help organise black share-croppers and other poor black farmers, a cause she has pursued for the rest of her life. As she recounted in her speech, this led her to fight for the “have-nots”, black and white, against the “haves”.

As Shirley Sherrod knows from the inside, the Department of Agriculture has a history of discrimination against black farmers, who have been fighting for decades for hundreds of millions in compensation owed to them by law for damage by agribusiness. Over the years, many have died. Others have been driven from their land. The money is now “tied up” in Congress even though a ruling has finally been made in their favour.

Tea Party

The NAACP jumped through the hoop when Fox News cracked the whip. But the NAACP remains part of the fight for equality. The whole incident began when the NAACP passed a resolution in July calling on the “Tea Party” to expel “racist elements” in its ranks. Andrew Breibart fabricated his video for use by Tea Party supporters to portray the NAACP as racist against whites. His smear job was headlined “Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism”.

“No sooner had the Tea Party adherents and defenders angrily denied that such elements amounted to anything more than a few fringe nuts”, wrote Frank Rich, “than Mark Williams, the spokesman and past chairman of the Tea Party Express, piped up. He slapped a ‘parody’ on the Web — a letter from ‘colored people’ to Abraham Lincoln berating him as ‘the greatest racist ever’ and complaining about ‘that whole emancipation thing’ because ‘freedom means having to work for real.’”

Williams had been making similar slurs for months, but after the NAACP cast a spotlight on the Tea Party, he was belatedly excommunicated by another Tea Party group. The Tea Party Express is a Republican Party front group that raises money for its most extreme right candidates.

There are not just some “racist elements” in the Tea Party. Racism permeates this loose collection of organisations and individuals. It includes the hundreds of thousands of “birthers” who say that Obama is an African, not a US citizen, and therefore cannot be president. A poll of people who identify with the Tea Party conducted by the New York Times found that 52% agreed with the statement “in recent years too much has been made of problems facing blacks”. And 25% say that Obama favours blacks over whites. It should be kept in mind that many of those polled tried to hide their racist views, for fear of having their movement labelled racist.

Members of a big Tea Party rally, addressed by Republican leaders, in front of the Capitol building, shouted “nigger” at John Lewis, a member of Congress, as he entered. No one in the crowd objected. Lewis was a leader of SNCC with Charles Sherrod, when he was beaten and suffered a skull fracture on the historic march for black voting rights in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Three weeks later, Shirley Sherrod’s father was murdered.

Breibart called Lewis a liar, and fabricated another video to “prove” it, but it was so phoney that Fox refused to air it. And that’s saying something from a station that “pumps racial rage into the media bloodstream 24/7”, in the words of Rich.

Reality

What of the charge of “racism in reverse” and “too much has been made of problems facing blacks”? The facts are the opposite, of course. By all social indicators — unemployment, availability of housing, wages, education, health — black people still suffer from the racism built into the US capitalist system. This is true even though great gains were made by the civil rights and black power movement of the 1960s in smashing the legal apartheid system in the South and its de facto reflection in the North.

In the current recession, for example, blacks are taking the brunt. They have at least twice the unemployment rate of whites if real numbers are taken into account. (Official unemployment rates don’t count workers who haven’t applied for a job in the past four weeks, for example.) Black youth are especially hard hit, with many pushed into hopelessness about finding a job.

Belief in “racism in reverse” flies in the face of the facts. What is behind it, then? It is fear among many whites of being pushed down to the level of blacks. It is irrational racism, the belief that blacks are to blame, and not the system.

Black hostility towards whites does not have the same roots as white hostility to blacks. The former is an expression of opposition to oppression and racism, and the latter an expression of support for oppression and racism. Shirley Sherrod’s case illustrates the point. Her initial hostility to the poor white family farmer came out of living under apartheid in the deep south, including the murder of her father. The hostility of the white killer toward blacks was an expression of oppression of blacks. The two aren’t the same.

[The title of this regular column, “From the belly of the beast”, was how the great Cuban fighter against US imperialism Jose Marti, signed his letters to friends back in Cuba when he was in the US.]