After the Shirley Sherrod furor, a pivot on racial entitlement?

The US Department of Agriculture, from which Shirley Sherrod was fired for appearing to discriminate, stood at the forefront of institutional racism for decades. The question of whether America has righted historical wrongs against blacks ignites today's heated race debate.

By , Staff writer

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    Shirley Sherrod answers questions during an interview at her home on Friday in Albany, Ga. President Obama has apologized to Sherrod, who was hastily fired from her job at the Agriculture Department following false charges of racism.
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Bubbling beneath the Shirley Sherrod furor is a debate that many Americans are itching to have, but aren't quite sure how to bring up in polite company: The fairness of minority preferences and entitlements.

That Ms. Sherrod, who is black, could be fired for making a racist statement – a false charge, as it turned out – seemed to many Americans to show a new willingness by the Obama administration to acknowledge that racism isn't just a problem for the white community. That it happened to an employee of the Department of Agriculture, which recently approved a $1.2 billion settlement for black farmers who faced decades of discrimination, only seemed to drive home that point.

While officials now say that Sherrod's forced resignation was too hasty – in fact, Obama apologized personally to Sherrod and she has been offered another job – the episode gave Americans an opportunity to discuss the substance of the point she was trying to make in the much-publicized March speech to an NAACP dinner in Douglas, Ga.: Whether race should still play a role in federal and state policy and politics.

As such, the Sherrod case embodies the race debate in both personal and institutional terms. It raises questions for many liberals about the state of racism on the political right and questions from many white Americans about when the post-Civil Rights era of minority preferences and entitlements will end.

'No parallel in our history'


"The injustices endured by black Americans at the hands of their own government have no parallel in our history, not only during the period of slavery but also in the Jim Crow era that followed," writes Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia in the Wall Street Journal. "But the extrapolation of this logic to all 'people of color' – especially since 1965, when new immigration laws dramatically altered the demographic makeup of the U.S. – moved affirmative action away from remediation and toward discrimination, this time against whites. It has also lessened the focus on assisting African-Americans, who despite a veneer of successful people at the very top still experience high rates of poverty, drug abuse, incarceration and family breakup."

Few departments have struggled as much with how to resolve the legacy of institutional racism as the Department of Agriculture. That includes the man who fired Sherrod, Secretary Tom Vilsack, "who signaled a desire to atone for the USDA's checkered past, including pushing for funding of a historic $1.15 billion settlement that would help thousands of African American farmers but now faces bitter resistance from Senate Republicans," writes Chris Kromm on the Facing South blog.

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"This is a good woman. She has been put through hell," Mr. Vilsack told CNN, acknowledging a shift in priorities. "I want to renew the commitment of this department to a new era in civil rights. I want to close the chapter on a very difficult period in civil rights."

Sherrod herself was struggling with the dichotomy of race and entitlement in her controversial speech, which, in full hearing indicated that, despite her experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South, she had ultimately moved beyond seeing the world through a prism of race.

"It’s a great story, honestly told, and I’d bet that most of those who took the time to watch that tape at one point reflected on their own, perhaps uncompleted journey to that same grace that Sherrod has tried to attain," writes Jay Bookman in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "That is a good thing. America has never been a static concept. To the contrary, it has existed in a permanent state of transformation politically and economically as well as demographically."

But instead of a thoughtful, albeit uncomfortable debate, as Mr. Bookman calls for, the racial tension, political scientists say, has only gotten more intense, fueled by both liberals and conservatives trying to score political points ahead of the election by charging their counterparts with racism.

From racialized caricatures of Obama at tea party rallies to groups like the NAACP seeing shadows of racism behind every mostly-white gathering, the debate seems to have devolved in recent weeks.

"There's a lot of discomfort over this issue, and it's breaking to the surface now," says Daniel Klinghard, a political science professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

Obama as the first black president


Moreover, President Obama's election as the first black president has both fueled racial antagonism while at the same time providing proof to many Americans that their country is no longer defined by race.

"The desire to move past race is genuine, but I think that the method of getting past race reflects a certain type of dysfunction in American society," says Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

And once raised, the entitlement question is a difficult one to resolve.

In his column, Sen. Webb suggests getting rid of federal minority preference policies, including affirmative action programs, but not completely gutting programs that help struggling African-Americans. Complicating government's role is that key institutions such as schools, for example, are not federal enterprises, but rely on local property taxes and school boards to function – a system that all but ensures educational disparity that often affects blacks more than whites.

"I like the concept of 'enabling opportunity for all,'" writes James Joyner, on the Outside the Beltway blog. ""But what does that mean in practice? How do we break this cycle through the government?"

Related:

Shirley Sherrod debacle: why Obama stumbles on race

Shirley Sherrod: casualty of escalating 'tea party'-NAACP race spat?

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