Wednesday, July 21, 2010

From the Left: What the Shirley Sherrod Controversy Portends for the Obama Administration on Race

I have nothing to add to the Shirley Sherrod controversy--the African American woman who was unjustly fired from her USDA job and condemned by almost everyone as a consequence of right-wing race-baiting. This courageous and innocent woman has been offered her job back.  Though I don't know that she can ever be made whole for what we have put her through in the last 24 hours.  I do want to explore very briefly what this controversy could mean for the Obama Administration's relationship with black voters, who as everyone knows are stalwarts in this Administration.

If you have not read The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates's strong rebuke of the Administration for its alleged role in bringing about the firing of Ms. Sherrod, you should do so here.  The Obama Administration is increasingly getting push back from black leaders and black intellectuals on the way the Administration handles race and racial equality issues.  I think some of that push back has been unfair because the Administration is in a difficult position and has done a lot, particularly behind the scenes, to promote policies and hire individuals that racial progressives should support.  But sometimes that push back has been warranted as the Administration sometimes appears to be deaf to the needs of communities of color.

So far, I think criticism of the Administration on race from the left has been politically ineffectual. Specifically, the average black person remains a fierce supporter of the President and could not be bothered by the chatter of black elites.  Knowing this, the White House can afford to ignore the critics.  Nevertheless, events such as the Shirley Sherrod controversy, are precisely the types of narratives that will resonate with the black electorate.  If black people feel that innocent hardworking black folks are being sold down the river aided and abetted by the White House they will revolt.  If the President loses the black electorate, the Administration is lost.

I'm sure the White House understands this, which is why we saw that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs apologized to Ms. Sherrod and Ag Sec Vilsack rescinded her firing.  Moreover, they will keep the President as far away from this controversy as possible.  But this story represents a leak in the dam; it may be a small leak, but it is a leak.  It will make it that much harder for the White House to ignore the concerns of racial progressives and it will make the criticisms of black elites that much more effective.

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