Most open-minded Americans were repulsed by what happened to Shirley Sherrod, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) employee who was forced out of her job a couple of months ago after she was falsely accused of racism. The accusation was based on a speech she had made at a banquet in Georgia sponsored by a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In the edited tape of her speech, the impression was left that Sherrod, in an official capacity, had discriminated against a White farmer and his wife based solely on the color of their skin. The unedited tape clearly revealed the lie advanced against Sherrod was for purely political purposes—marinated in ill intent. What was initially purported to be balanced reporting was anything but.
In an impulsive action that added insult to injury, the secretary of the USDA terminated Sherrod before fact-checking the accusations. But in a highly publicized personal crusade over three intense days, Sherrod insisted on her innocence and eventually received a public apology from the secretary of the USDA, in which he acknowledged that he had acted prematurely without having all the facts.
The Sherrod affair brought to the surface the prickly issue of race once again in the American consciousness. But this time an artful new twist turned the issue of race and racism on its head. It was almost surreal as it played out.
The attack against Sherrod seemed to be a direct response to the NAACP publicly calling on the Tea Party political movement to remove from its ranks any elements of racism. The NAACP didn’t say that the Tea Party was racist: it only pointed out that there were racist elements within the movement.
During the past year many Americans have watched with growing concern as some of the fringe elements in the Tea Party movement crossed the line from basic political dissent, which is every American’s right, to actions that looked, well, racist, while hiding under political cover. Some of the signs at Tea Party rallies were, frankly, offensive to many Americans, as they brazenly advanced racial stereotypes.
As my family and I watched some of the Tea Party rallies on television—observing both the signs and some of the rhetoric—we were shocked by what we saw. The overwhelming majority of people participating in these rallies were only expressing disagreement and dissent, and there was nothing remotely racist in what they said or did. But that wasn’t the case for all.
Add to that the racially tinged conversations emanating from some radio talk show hosts, coupled with the nightly cable television talkfest, and you see a “neo-populism” emerging that says it’s OK to subtly project racist views: just don’t call me out on it. Pointing out the racism evokes an explosion of vitriol.
Despite what’s clearly seen and heard, it is made to seem that the opposite is occurring. How does the saying go: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”
I ask, then, where is the Christian church in all this?
Martin Luther King, Jr., in his profound letters written from the Birmingham Jail to the White clergy of that city back in the 1960s, lamented that the clergy were standing silent in the face of overt racism and violence against their Black brothers and sisters, while at the same time vehemently criticizing King for agitating on behalf of justice. The clergy of Birmingham framed it that King and the demonstrators were the problem—not the police and city power structure intent on perpetuating injustice.
The church in that era did not collectively raise its prophetic voice to oppose injustice, but facilitated it by its silence.
Given the intense political environment in which we live in America, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to call out wrong because of the swift retribution and obfuscation that often follow.
Notwithstanding the risk, the church must have a strong, moral voice in responding to any kind of wrong, refusing to be co-opted by a culture that insists on silence.
Fredrick A. Russell is president of the Allegheny West Conference, with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. This article was published October 14, 2010.