Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Redemption Scenario

Cross-posted to The Moderate Voice

The scandal of the day was the story of a USDA employee who appeared to indicate that she gave less than full help to a White farmer in an incident over 20 years ago, on account of his race. She told the story at an NAACP dinner, hence the contemporary hook -- conservatives (or at least segments of them) are still on their kick that the NAACP is the true racist organization in America. As it turns out, the employee was actually telling the tale as a redemption scenario -- she realized her prejudice was wrong, threw her full support to the White family, and ended up saving the farm. Hence why the family has consistently intervened to give her their full support.

When I first saw the story this afternoon, I didn't have time to blog about it, which is good, because I didn't know the full context and, like the NAACP, would have been at risk of getting "snookered". But I did know that the incident happened over 20 years ago. And that got me to thinking.

When the United States finally repudiated Jim Crow in the 1960s and 70s, it did not come with any purges. By and large, the same bureaucrats who managed our racist system in 1950 still managed the more egalitarian system that had emerged by 1970. There are lots of reasons for this, starting with the fact that firing every single person who had participated in America's brand of racial apartheid would have effectively left us without a civil service, and ending with the fact that America never really has managed to wrap its head around just how deeply the sins of racism had enmeshed itself in the system -- a full accounting of which would have extracted its pound of flesh from virtually each and every man and woman alive in this nation.

In any event, these bureaucrats took many forms. Some undoubtedly had opposed racism even at its apex, others really didn't care about it one way or the other. Some were loyal disciples of Jim Crow who later realized the error of their ways, and some had no guilt at all regarding their role as agents of apartheid, but adjusted to the new social order all the same. And some, of course, were entirely unrepentant and maintained a belief in White supremacy, but suppressed that outlook just enough to keep their job.

The point being -- this nation has a long history of employing the formerly racist. The best case scenario for such employees, usually, is that they come to see the light and dedicate the remainder of their professional lives towards remedying racial inequality and securing racial justice. And that story -- a story of redemption -- appears to be the story of Shirley Sherrod. It's not the worst tale in the world. To the extent that this country has moved forward on matters of race, it is, in fact, the quintessential American tale.


joe said...

Good points, though I always thought the quintessential American tale was the older, more racist generations dying out, making way for gradually less racist descendants.

The thing that strikes me about this "scandal" is the heads-you-lose approach taken by many on the right here. Since she was fired so promptly they switch gears from what undoubtedly would be "Obama employing racist politburo appointees! ACORN! ACORN!" to acknowledging that she appeared repentant so Obama must be doing a craven political firing, or actually has a problem with her repentance, or (as Glenn Beck's chalkboard theorized) there must be some secret even-worse statement from Sherrod which has yet to surface and that the administration must be seeking to preempt.

N. Friedman said...


I largely agree with what you have posted here.

An important question is how it has become that gotcha has become such an important part of politics. Is this the next phase that has arisen from "investigative journalism," is it the prominence of the Internet which bypasses normal journalist integrity (to the extent that was a real thing) or is it inherent in our age's politics.

We had the insane, at least in my view, approach taken by Clinton's Republican opponents in view of his sexual peccadilloes and efforts to hide them. Some of what Democrats did in response to the incompetent Bush II was also derailed from reality although, of course, nothing compared to impeaching a president for trying to cover up what, as one woman described it on NPR, doing what an honorable man would do, "never kiss and then tell."

This is all bad for the country. The ones who are on the losing end of "gotcha" is the public.

PG said...

I think someone at the Washington Post editorial page noted, upon the passing of Robert Byrd, that this is one of the differences between Democrats and Republican on race: in order to remain Democrats, those like Byrd who were overt racists in the '60s and '70s had to acknowledge that they were wrong and at least claim to have repented of their pasts. In contrast, folks like Strom Thurmond moved to the GOP and refused to say they'd ever been wrong -- and had their old states' rights platforms held up by younger Republican politicians as good ideas.