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 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.
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement that his group was “snookered” into believing that U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod expressed racist sentiments at a local NAACP meeting earlier this year.
Early today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he would reconsider the department’s decision to oust Sherrod as the USDA’s Georgia director of rural development.
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 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 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.
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.
But the NAACP backed away from its first take on Tuesday. Jealous said Breitbart deceived millions of people by releasing only partial clips.
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.