The scandal of the day was the story of a USDA employee named Shirley Sherrod who appeared to indicate that she gave less than full help to a White farmer in an incident over 20 years ago, on account of his race. She told the story at an NAACP dinner, hence the contemporary hook — conservatives (or at least segments of it) are still on their kick that the NAACP is the true racist organization in America. As it turns out, the employee was actually telling the tale as a redemption scenario — she realized her prejudice was wrong, threw her full support to the White family, and ended up saving the farm. Hence why the family has consistently intervened to give her their full support.
When I first saw the story this afternoon, I didn’t have time to blog about it, which is good, because I didn’t know the full context and, like the NAACP, would have been at risk of getting “snookered”. But I did know that the incident happened over 20 years ago. And that got me to thinking.
When the United States finally repudiated Jim Crow in the 1960s and 70s, it did not come with any purges. By and large, the same bureaucrats who managed our racist system in 1950 still managed the more egalitarian system that had emerged by 1970. There are lots of reasons for this, starting with the fact that firing every single person who had participated in America’s brand of racial apartheid would have effectively left us without a civil service, and ending with the fact that America never really has managed to wrap its head around just how deeply the sins of racism had enmeshed itself in the system — a full accounting of which would have extracted its pound of flesh from virtually each and every man and woman alive in this nation.
In any event, these bureaucrats took many forms. Some undoubtedly had opposed racism even at its apex, others really didn’t care about it one way or the other. Some were loyal disciples of Jim Crow who later realized the error of their ways, and some had no guilt at all regarding their role as agents of apartheid, but adjusted to the new social order all the same. And some, of course, were entirely unrepentant and maintained a belief in White supremacy, but suppressed that outlook just enough to keep their job.
The point being — this nation has a long history of employing the formerly racist. The best case scenario for such employees, usually, is that they come to see the light and dedicate the remainder of their professional lives towards remedying racial inequality and securing racial justice. And that story — a story of redemption — appears to be the story of Shirley Sherrod. It’s not the worst tale in the world. To the extent that this country has moved forward on matters of race, it is, in fact, the quintessential American tale.