The trap – a grainy, 2½-minute clip – was rudimentary by today’s technology standards. It even bore a sign, “Trap Here↓” – posted as it was on the blog site of a man who has publicly declared his intent to destroy the institutional left. And yet, the Obama administration, blindly joined by the NAACP, fell neatly into the right wing snare that was Shirley Sherrod.

But then, they couldn’t see clearly, retreating, as they were, from the unrelenting onslaught of the Glenn Becks, Bill O’Reillys and Rush Limbaughs that have dominated the airwaves, fomenting fear and hysteria.

“Everybody’s on the defensive with the right wing media,” said Dianne Pinderhughes, professor of Africana studies and political science at Notre Dame University. “The NAACP had just come out of a dust up with Fox News and the tea party; they didn’t want to be vulnerable. the administration didn’t want the Shirley Sherrod story to step on their lead, which was financial reform. Sherrod would be a ‘race’ story and they didn’t want a race story.”

That’s because race, for the administration of the nation’s first Black president, has been the ultimate boogie man. In trying to elude right wing accusations of showing favoritism toward Blacks, the administration pirouettes around the issues – ignoring the need for targeted programs to transform Black communities that are, undeniably, disproportionately poor and disenfranchised, and firing Sherrod before properly investigating the origin and authenticity of the video clip in which the Georgia-based agriculture official was depicted as racist.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s assertion that America is a “nation of cowards” when it comes to race may or may not be true. But the Obama administration has proven that it is, many observers are saying.

“They run from racial issues like illegal immigrants run from the INS,” said political analyst Jason Johnson, Ph.D., who teaches political science at Hiram College in Ohio. “Obama is an excruciatingly careful and cautious politician … but when it comes to issues of race – whether it be Skip Gates or this – when there’s a racial issue they will backtrack like nobody’s business.”

And so it was that the same element – which tried to dissuade Obama from speaking on race during the Rev. Jeremiah Wright imbroglio – drew and quartered Sherrod, firing her in a phone call while she drove.

“They called me twice,” Sherrod told The Associated Press. “The last time, they asked me to pull over to the side of the road and submit my resignation on my BlackBerry, and that’s what I did.”

According to African-American leaders such as Congressman James Clyburn, D-S.C., and political analysts, such insensitive acts and the White House’s skittishness around race is due to the ignorance of West Wing White guys who have no sense of Black history or the Black community.

“I don’t think a single Black person was consulted before Shirley Sherrod was fired – I mean c’mon,” Clyburn was quoted as saying by the New York Times.

Even if Google was consulted, administration officials would have found enough information to question the charges against Sherrod: her husband Charles Sherrod was a Freedom Rider and a key member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the 1960s. Her reputation within the private sector and government was stellar. And, if they had looked at the entire video, they would have seen a story of racial healing – Sherrod’s father was murdered by the Klu Klux Klan – and a message – “We have to get to the point where race exists but it doesn’t matter” – that could have proven an invaluable tool.

“This could have been a wonderful bat to take out the ankles of the tea party, Fox News and the hard right Republican Party,” said Johnson, much as Obama did when he explained the nuances of race during the Rev. Wright scandal.

Instead, this incident will likely alienate Obama even more from his base, which has already begun to question his backbone in dealing with certain issues. “The president’s getting hurt real bad,” Clyburn told the Times’ Maureen Dowd. “He needs some Black people around him.

“Some people over there are not sensitive at all about race. They really feel that the extent to which he allows himself to talk about race would tend to pigeonhole him or cost him support, when a lot of people saw his election as a way to get the issue behind us. I don’t think people elected him to disengage on race. Just the opposite.”

Similarly, people depend on the NAACP to be a stalwart arbiter of social and racial harmony and defender of civil rights. Yet, instead of reviewing the video – which belonged to their organization – or even ensuring Shirley Sherrod was given a fair hearing, the NAACP, too, allowed itself to be “snookered” by Fox News and Andrew Breitbart, the tea party supporter who released the misleading clip, into castigating Shirley Sherrod. That reaction was also triggered by fear, Johnson and others said, of Right Wing accusations of reverse racism.

In offering his mea culpas, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous later said, “Next time we are confronted by a racial controversy broken by Fox News or their allies in the Tea Party like Mr. Breitbart, we will consider the source and be more deliberate in responding.”

But an apology would not have been necessary if the civil rights organization has not been caught up in a “sound bite clash” with conservatives and had been more focused on its mission, many observers said.

“We lose when we fight the fight plan of the opponent. They want to trivialize us and have us chasing in a ‘got you’ mentality,” said civil rights leader, the Rev. Al Sharpton on “The Tom Joyner Morning Show” July 21, adding that the Right Wing would only “distort” the truth “and set us up.”

“The lesson here is we cannot let them tell us how to fight our fight … or we will be sucked into an atmosphere where we will end up with more casualties than victories,” Sharpton continued.

“Our victory is to make sure the government protects us around jobs, around health care, around education and not going tit for tat with those on the Right Wing that only win and are inflated in such fights….

“We have real problems on the ground…. We cannot afford to be diverted with some side discussions; we have to keep our eyes on the prize. We are going to need to be sober and focused if we’re going to keep our people moving forward in this generation.”


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO