Andrew Breitbart Should Apologize to Shirley Sherrod

And all of us—including the NAACP and the Tea Party—should be more careful about throwing the word "racist" around

President Obama signed a financial reform bill into law yesterday. It should have been a good day for the administration, a day to celebrate a major piece of legislation before the midterm elections. Instead, the signing and all other news took a back seat to a good woman treated badly by the media and the Obama administration because, as far as we’ve come, we still are dangerously clumsy when dealing with issues of race in this country.

The Shirley Sherrod debacle should stand forever as an ugly example of the how the race issue can be used as a weapon and why it must stop. Good people get hurt.

The debacle started last week when the NAACP accused the Tea Party of being fueled by racism. The Tea Party is not a racist organization. There are undoubtedly racist elements in the movement; but at its core the Tea Party is about smaller government and less taxes.

The Tea Party, aided by conservative bloggers and the Fox News channel, fired back, accusing the NAACP of being a racist organization. It is not. There are undoubtedly racist elements, but at its core the NAACP is about racial equality.

But anytime race is injected into a debate, emotion seems to cloud reason. Unfortunately, there are people who take advantage of that dynamic and the Shirley Sherrod case is a perfect example. Sherrod was wounded in a national political duel, with the word “racist” as the weapon of choice.[SIGNUP]

A very personal, honest and inspirational speech Sherrod, a 62-year-old Georgian, gave at an NAACP meeting was purposely taken out of context to make her look like a racist, or specifically to make the NAACP look like racists. Shirley Sherrod must have been considered acceptable collateral damage by Andrew Breitbart, a right-wing Internet rabble-rouser who has had run-ins with the truth before this latest whopper.

I fell for Breitbart’s despicable lie when I saw it for the first time. There was Sherrod, a black bureaucrat from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on video, seemingly bragging about how she withheld aid to a struggling white farmer because he was “acting superior.”

I wasn’t the only one to fall for it. The media was quick to label Shirley Sherrod a racist. The story spun out of control on cable news and on the Internet for 24 hours.

Tuesday morning Shirley Sherrod was doing what she always does; she was visiting famers as part of her job as a federal liaison for the USDA. On her three-hour drive back from Augusta to Atlanta, she got a frantic phone call from a representative of the Secretary of Agriculture asking for Sherrod’s immediate resignation. She wasn’t even allowed to return to the office. She was asked to pull off on the side of the road and resign right then and there.

Had the Obama administration investigated even a little bit, had the media done its job and fact-checked the story, a great injustice and even greater embarrassment could have been avoided.

The story of Roger Spooner, the “white farmer,” happened 24 years ago. He credits Sherrod with saving his farm. In her speech, Sherrod was using the Spooner case as an example in her own personal journey of racial reconciliation after her father was killed by the KKK when she was a little girl.

It is the kind of speech we all need to hear and the fact that she had to go through the pain of being called a racist on national TV and then losing her job should be, as President Obama likes to say, “a teaching moment.”

Racism has a deep and ugly history in this country. We have still not healed and we never will if we don’t deal head-on with an evil off-shoot of the word: Racistism—the use of the word “racist” as a weapon for personal or political gain.

The accusation is so powerfully charged with emotion that it can cause the media, the government and all of us to forget ourselves and act irrationally. There was never better proof of that than the events of the past two days. The media forgot to do its job of seeing if a story was true, and the Obama administration forgot to do its due diligence before firing a woman.

Many in the media, including Bill O’Reilly from Fox News, have apologized to Shirley Sherrod. The Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has apologized personally. Sherrod wants to talk directly with the President, and my guess is her request will be granted. The person who owes her a direct apology is Andrew Breitbart, but my guess is that will not happen.

After all the apologies are finished, and the name Shirley Sherrod fades from memory, except in journalism and race-relation classes, will we have learned anything?

If the answer is no, we are a long way from healing.