Roland Martin: The Perils of Race in the 21st Century

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By Roland S. Martin

There is no issue that is more volatile, passionate, confusing, perplexing and complex than the reality of race in America.

Whether we are discussing the motives of the Tea Party, the legal ramifications of the new Arizona immigration law, the impact of the Supreme Court deciding a reverse discrimination case involving firefighters, or the speech of a Department of Agriculture official at a NAACP convention, it is an issue that permeates so many of our discussions, whether we want to admit it or not.

The latest flare-up in this ever evolving story involves Shirley Sherrod, a USDA official, who became a national story when Andrew Breitbart’s website, BigGovernment.com, posted a video allegedly showing her admitting to discriminating against a white farmer.

As the story began to gain circulation, and it got picked up by national media outlets, the Department of Agriculture swiftly moved to quell a potential firestorm by asking for her resignation, which was granted. Later, the NAACP weighed in, saying that the comments attributed to her were not right, and it went against their mission of racial equality.

The next day, Sherrod fired back, saying the rest of the story wasn’t told, insisting that she was speaking about redemption from initially not doing enough for a white farmer and then later realizing that it wasn’t about race, but instead, the haves and have nots.

Her statements, along with that of the white farmers in question coming to her defense, led to a fluid situation, and the NAACP later retracted its position, and said she should not have been fired for an impassioned 45-minute speech that was far different than what was initially reported.

The initial wave of attention was based on the initial reports and the Department of Agriculture’s actions. When reading the comments, I too was surprised that an official would say such a thing. That’s why when I went on CNN Tuesday morning, I said that it didn’t surprise me that the Obama Administration would seek to prevent a story from blowing up beyond the comments, and that the comments as initially reported represented a prejudice that is unjustified, whether spoken by someone black or white. I added that as someone who has been a fierce advocate of diversity, I fundamentally believe that regardless of how we have been impacted by race in the past, no matter the race, we cannot allow that to prevent us from doing all we can to assist the next person. And as a post-Civil Rights Movement baby, it is a position that I have fiercely defended before and will do so in the future.

Was I wrong in assuming that we had the full story of Sherrod at the outset? Yes. Was a snap judgment made based upon that? Yes. Has it happened before? Of course! There have been many times, especially when I hosted a radio show, where the conversation about something took off based on a newspaper report or comment that came across the wire. If you turn on the radio, whether conservative talk radio or urban and pop formats, you’ll hear lots of discussions about events even as they are unfolding.

In the selected soundbite put out, Shirley Sherrod admitted to that initial prejudice. But in the far more expansive release, she also spoke of changing for the good of humanity, and desired to call each of us to do so. That’s why Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack should reverse his decision to accept her resignation (And yes, I concurred with the initial decision based on the information at hand).

She has the same right to evolve as the late Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat whose membership in the KKK followed him to his grave, and knowing full well that no matter what he did later in life to vote accordingly, some would still view him through the lens of his old self. And some folks are afraid to admit that while they accept Sherrod evolving, they do not accept Byrd’s progressive movement on the issue of race.

As I read a lot of the comments on Facebook and Twitter, it was interesting to read the reaction to this story from whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives, voters and non-voters. Racial prejudices, sympathetic voices, outraged views and tempered comments were all colliding at one time, clearly illustrating how difficult this issue is.

Yet unlike others, I do believe this story carries with us useful lessons that can be helpful moving forward. But we should also be willing to confront some unsettling perspectives on race from the various angles. If you want to keep playing gotcha, go right ahead. But there is a broader purpose to be had.

Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, we walk a careful tightrope on matters of race. If you are black and in a position of influence, there often times is an expectation to stay race-neutral so as not to offend anyone. That puts that person in a precarious position that can rankle folks from all sides.

For years, a lot of black folks privately grumbled about Oprah not sufficiently tackling issues of race on her show and creating a format that was colorless. She was criticized for appealing to white women, and neglecting “her own.” But when she decided to endorse then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, she was praised by blacks, and savaged on message boards and blogs by whites for only endorsing “the black guy.” And when she opted not to have then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on her show, she was ripped from head to toe by conservative women.

She was in a no-win situation publicly, but one where she could – and should – only have to answer to her authentic self and do what was right.

President Obama has to walk that very same line. He gave what I perceived as an honest answer last year about the arrest of Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. by the Cambridge, Mass., police, and was savaged for his critics by weighing in. Some whites said he went too far; some blacks said not far enough. He had to temper the flames by holding a beer summit between Gates and Sgt. James Crowley. The story dissipated, but the hard feelings remain.

As an African American commentator, I can be championed by those who look like me for “standing up for the race” and calling out bigotry, prejudice and racism – “putting those white folks in check” is a familiar refrain – yet when I take a position that is seen as contrary to black public opinion, then the Uncle Tom and traitor emails come out. And when I do speak honestly and openly about racism, I’m denounced by whites in some of the vilest language, with some demanding I be fired for daring to question the status quo.

It’s old hat so I’m used to it. In this business, if you aren’t ticking someone off on a daily basis you aren’t doing your job.

Yet whites also have to carry the burden of race.

I read your emails of resentment of having to answer to what took place in the last 400 years, from slavery through Jim Crow all the way up through the Civil Rights Movement to today. If someone white makes a comment perceived as a slight, they are pounced on, and made to apologize or resign a job. We’ve all seen the politician make a gaffe and suffer the consequences at the ballot box. Some are clearly more egregious than others, and that’s expected.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times was taken to task for his travels to Africa and other impoverished nations and focusing his pen and pad on largely whites helping out there, with some presenting them as the savior of the folks there. He admitted to a sense of white guilt as a driving force behind some of his reports, but how in the world can the guy be made to feel bad for doing the right thing?

But it’s also the reality that some whites simply don’t care that we are becoming a majority-minority country; and resent having to watch as the country shift culturally and not be as white-dominated as it has been to this point. No, they all don’t wear Klan robes and burn crosses, but Jim Crow bore children, and they live today, allowing racial resentment – both large and small – to cloud their judgments and decision-making, thus passing the prejudices on to the next generation.

All of this is simply an acknowledgement of what we see each and every day. Sure, if we’re black we can deny that some of our friends, family members and neighbors speak about white people in a hateful way. And if we’re white, we can sit here and say without hesitation that we don’t hear those around us use the N-word or talk about “those people” in hateful and shameful terms.

But in our hearts we know we’re lying. We know folks who have conversations based on stereotypes, and no matter how hard we try to turn it on our “prejudice de-emphasizer” – that internal knob we all use at the right moment – we sometimes allow those stereotypes to dictate our actions in the workplace.

And then we we are called on it, we often revert to the extreme. No one white wants to be called a racist, but also doesn’t want to be called out for prejudices, whether large or small. When cultural differences are pointed out through a racial prism, everyone gets on the defensive. African Americans will fiercely argue they cannot be racist by the true definition, but can’t accept the reality of when there are times and they hold the power, it can be used against someone white.

Shirley Sherrod is correct that the goal of every single of us is not to judge a man or a woman based on preconceived notions, but to recognize that he or she is a human being, and deserves to be given our best at all times. That is goal we say we all want, but do we really work hard to live by that credo each day?

If we are waiting in a restaurant, don’t begin to think that that black person is a horrible tipper and so you aren’t going to provide them top-notch service. If you assume a white waiter is ignoring you, don’t assume it’s based on race; it could be they are bussing too many tables. Too often we allow our past experiences to determine our present actions. To assume that one has to do with the other shouldn’t be our first line of defense. There really could be another reason.

Whether we like it or not, there is hostility, apprehension and fear when it comes to race. For those that fight it, there is the desire to not let racism gain an inch, so every situation is targeted, exploited and dealt with. In those cases, it may simply be not as it appears. For those fearful of being branded a racist, which may result in stripping away your true feelings about something because you don’t want to be accused of being a racist if you are white, or having to be labeled the angry black man or woman. Then there are those who are so much in denial about race that they dismiss it outright when it’s staring them in the face.

We all make mistakes. We say things, do things, feel things one day that are wrong, and we should have the space to correct it without being branded with it for life. Often times it’s our perspective and history that will reveal how we will infer what has been stated or implied. An honest mistake can be an honest mistake.

Yet where there are clear racial motives that are meant to stir up trouble and muddy the waters, we shouldn’t be afraid to say, and do so in the most forceful manner.

Shirley Sherrod is an innocent bystander on what appears to be the never ending Race Highway. It is a road that many of us say we hope and desire it finally dead ends, yet with each passing generation, we want to extend it for various reasons.

We talk about the race conversation and the need for it. It really begins with a talk with self. Then our family. Then friends. It is one that whites must have with each other. And yes, blacks must have with one another. And it goes for every race. After we talk then we must pledge to change, and hold one another accountable; not to tear each other down but to build each other up.

We do have a chance to end our infatuation and indifference on race. I’d prefer Shirley Sherrod 24 years ago, and unnamed people today, to not begin a relationship with prejudice against someone else in their mind. And I’m confident we can achieve that today.

But it cannot be just about laws or changing policies, it really has to start with every individual making a conscious decision, no matter what happened to them before today, to make a personal commitment to change. If that happens, being clogged in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Race Highway will inevitably lead to an open road to peace, happiness and personal fulfillment.

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