Shirley Sherrod: On the Vilification of Black Women (Updated)

The intense political firestorm around Shirley Sherrod, the former USDA worker, has once again put racism at the center of many of the mainstream news shows.  Few have done a better job in talking about this than political commentator and Princeton University professor of political science, Melissa Harris Lacewell.  Appearing on MSNBC’s Countdown, she notes that the Sherrod case highlights the way that black women have been vilified in American politics (5:00):

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In this short clip, Harris Lacewell points out that the vilification of black women has been a feature of both the left and the right, both Republicans and Democrats (Bill Clinton, Sister Soulja, anyone?) in this country.   My favorite part of her comments come toward the end when she likens the attacks on Sherrod to that film of a few years ago, “Crash.”  Here’s the transcript of this part of her interview:

It reminds me very much of the Academy-award-winning of 2004, “Crash.”  I heard this story breaking, and I thought, this sounds like that film to me. If you remember that film, the first act of really horrifying racism occurs when the white police officer puts his hand up an African American woman’s dress, a sexual assault on her.  But – in a scene right after that – we see a black woman bureaucrat refusing government services to this police officer’s aging father.  The idea in that film, that the movie made …and we embraced it as a country and felt good about awarding the Oscar … is that the police officer and the low-level bureaucrat are the same, all prejudice is equal, this is the thing the NAACP is moved to do, it’s to explain that it is structural racism matters, not just momentary lapses of prejudice.  Even if that tape had been true, it would not have been the equivalency of Jim Crow, to slavery, to institutional racism.

While many of the mainstream news outlets will blame this on Fox News, or a conservative blogger, or the White House’s “race to judgment,”  the fact is that the vilification of Shirley Sherrod is indicative of a larger pattern of systemic racism in the U.S., and the particular way that black women get vilified in this culture.

UPDATED: For further context on the real racism happening at the USDA, check this link about the systematic pattern of racism at the agency, whose own Commission on Small Farms admitted in 1998 that “the history of discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture … is well-documented” — not against white farmers, but African-American, Native American and other minorities who were pushed off their land by decades of racially-biased laws and practices.


  1. cordoba blue

    I’m confused about the part where “is that the police officer and the low-level bureaucrat are the same, all prejudice is equal, this is the thing the NAACP is moved to do, it’s to explain that it is structural racism that matters, not just momentary lapses of prejudice.”
    If the low-level black bureaucrat is the same as the white police officer, then that’s reverse racism, right? The black bureaucrat was practicing reverse racism against the older white man? I thought there was a consensus here that reverse racism didn’t exist. That the term reverse racism was not even viable. African Americans are definitely the recipients of 99.9% of the racism in America, so I personally think the reverse racism stance is not valid. But the NAACP is supporting the notion that reverse racism exists? Somebody help me with this. Thanks.

    • No1KState

      I don’t think they’re supporting the notion of reverse racism so much as the notion that anyone can have racial bias.

      Racism isn’t just bias against a particular racial or ethnic group. It’s the bias plus social and cultural power.

      So you have a single low-level bureaucrat who acts against an elderly white guy vs a single cop. Research (that I’ve read and anyone doubting me should probably google cause I’m not going to do that work for you) shows that whites receive preferential treatment in the allocation of funds via social safety net. So it’s safe to assume that such an anti-white bureacrat at any level is a rarity. On the other hand, there’re millions of cops and maybe as many studies showing anti-black bias among the police. So it’s also safe to assume that such an anti-black cop, of any race, is the norm. (There are times when it seems like anti-black bias is a requirement of police academy graduation.)

      So just in LA county, 1 (maybe 2) anti-white low-level bureaucratic racist vs thousands of anti-black racist cops.

      In that way, reverse racism does not exist.

  2. Shari Valentine

    Good job Jessie. Those blame points at the end are of course pieces of the structure that supports the vilification.

    Why doesn’t anyone ever, ever connect the dots on these things. I am so disappointed in the actions of this administration and the lame responses of the media.

    I caught myself wondering as I read the various news accounts, I wonder what Michelle Obama is thinking tonight and I wonder what you say to your young black daughters. Heck I am having trouble figuring out what to say to my young half white daughter about it all.

    She is visiting my sister and emailed me a news story with the subject line, “What’s up with Obama Mom?”. So far I have only managed to respond that it is too complicated for email. And I have 2 days to figure out an answer that is not just totally depressing and without hope.

  3. No1KState

    I’m sorry. I need some help.

    What exactly does this have to do with black women as a group? Is the point that had Sherrod been a black man, this wouldn’t have happened? Or, is the point that black women are easily dumped on? I’ll need help with the first (ie, Van Jones eventually resigned, albeit after days, maybe weeks, of Glenn Becking), but I get the second (ie, welfare queens).

    • ThirtyNine4Ever

      I think the point was that black women are easily dumped on and then quickly abandoned by the people who should be supporting them. I remember Anita Hill for instance from my childhood, even though she really had nothing to gain she was treated in the press like some sort of left wing patsy obviously faking her story. Even Condoleezza Rice was trashed and trashed and rarely defended but in reality, during Bush’s first term she was copmletely shut out of the inner circle and during his second term when you listend to them talk, she was by far the the most realistic and smartest of the Bush foreign policy people even if I didn’t agree with her on a lot of points.

  4. Will

    I think it also points out how society’s mainstream is obsessed to find anything wrong with blacks no matter their status and their swiftness to pounce on anything they find. What’s more disturbing is how most people, as evidence with the Shirley Sherrod case, will jump on it as if it’s suppose to claim that black are racist against whites while ignoring white racism.

    It’s also a useful way to derail from major issues especially regarding racism which the media is notoriously guilty of doing.

  5. Joe

    Note too that her father was killed by a white farmer in Jim Crow days and got off at the hands of an all white jury. She has been a leading civil rights activist since she was a teenager, and thus helped bring down Jim Crow. Very few whites have been through the kinds of abuse and assault she has been through.

  6. No1KState

    What’s more disturbing is how most people, as evidence with the Shirley Sherrod case, will jump on it as if it’s suppose to claim that black are racist against whites while ignoring white racism.

    Don’t you know it!

    But I think the Sherrod case also demonstrates that much off anti-white bias amongst blacks is in response to racism and not an independent, self-occurring phenomenon. In the clip, even the edited one, she makes two points that were overlooked: 1 – a white man was talking down to her; and 2 – hundreds of black farmers were losing their farms and there was no one to help them. That’s why she considered not giving him the “full force” of what she could do. I think she says something like, “And he didn’t know all the time he spent trying to prove he was superior to me, I was trying to decide how much help I was really going to give him.”

    That’s something quite different from, say, assuming that since he’s white, he probably wouldn’t be able to keep it in the long run anyway; or, since he’s white, he probably came to own the land through some mommy-state welfare handout and probably isn’t actually farming and that’s why he’s in the situation he’s in; or, any other of assumptions that are immediately made about black people all the time, even if subconsciously.

    Moreover, she’s able to admit to being wrong – without resorting to any of the caveats I just mentioned. She didn’t say, “I was wrong, but he was being condescending.” She just makes that point that she learned her thinking had been myopic – not that race wasn’t part of the problem facing black farmers who were losing their land (In fact, banks are quicker foreclose on black mortgage-holders than white mortgage-holders, which is part of the self-fulfilling prophesy that blacks are poor credit risks . . . but that’s a whole nother thread. And also, Congress still hasn’t allocated the funds to pay black farmers in the recent discrimination settlement.) – just that poor white farmers are suffering, too.


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