Frame Game

Breitbart vs. Sherrod: Readers Take Me On

Slate readers challenge me on the NAACP video fiasco.

Last week, I wrote two articles about Shirley Sherrod, the woman who was wrongly depicted as a racist by Andrew Breitbart, denounced by the NAACP, and fired by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You, the readers of Slate, responded with more than 450 comments. You added insights, raised questions, and in some cases hammered me. I owe you some answers. Let’s take it from the top.

1. Don’t call it “lynching.” Barney Frankenstein assails my headline, “The Lynching of Shirley Sherrod.” He writes:

It’s disgusting to compare this to those who truly had violence perpetrated against them because of their skin color. This is a woman who lost her job and was falsely accused of something for what—less than 24 hours? She will come out of this better than she was before, I assure you. That’s hardly a lynching.

Several of you make the same point on Slate’s Facebook page. You’re right. I shouldn’t have used this metaphor in a context already loaded with race. It galls me when people like Alan Keyes apply the term “slavery” to welfare or income taxes. It’s an insult to people who experienced real slavery or, in this case, lynching.

2. Avoid “moral equivalence.” Many readers chide me for criticizing the NAACP instead of focusing entirely on Breitbart. Ben, for example, complains:

Right, William. It’s *both* sides’ fault. Not exclusively the responsibility of the lying, deceitful bigot who pulled the stunt. No, you have to blame someone else on the other side, too, and wrap everything in a nice piece of false equivalence so that it’s everyone’s fault and no-one’s, and thus the despicable actions of Breitbart and his cronies are given a pass.

Um … where did I say the NAACP’s sins were equivalent to Breitbart’s? I didn’t, and they aren’t. (Breitbart behaved worse.) I said the relative sinfulness of the left or right was a distraction from what should trouble us most: the political abuse of a human being. Sherrod was abused not only by Breitbart, but by the NAACP and the USDA, which cared more about protecting their reputations than about giving her a fair hearing. If you think what happened to her is “exclusively” Breitbart’s responsibility, it’s you, not me, who are giving some of her abusers a pass. We’re all sinners. Let’s face our failings, not just deflect blame.

3. Be more careful about attributing racism. Rhodeislander writes:

The usage of the race card for political and personal purposes has made both accusers and the accused so lazy, that people no longer even bother to find out if the accusations are even true. Of course the White House fired her—you expected them to actually bother researching the issue once the NAACP made their initial announcement? That would take, like, effort and stuff.

So true. Looking through the comments, I’m struck by how casually many readers attribute racism not just to the Tea Party but to conservatives in general. They equate criticism of President Obama with racism, forgetting that conservatives leveled the same criticisms at President Clinton. One particularly shameful post tells a conservative reader that “you are a racist” because “Stormfront is right with you on this Sherrod thing…gee I wonder why?”

Wake up, people. Sherrod was denounced by the NAACP and fired by the USDA because they were too hasty to attribute racism. This was not a one-time error. It was a continuation of the NAACP’s accusatory sloppiness. Learn the lesson, and be more judicious.

4. Black people can’t be racist. Degsme writes:

Even if Sherrod had failed to help [the farmer, Roger] Spooner, it STILL would NOT HAVE BEEN RACISM. Racism is the imposition of myths based on race as well as consequential actions from those myths. It’s NOT a myth that Spooner—as a white farmer—was better off than a minority farmer with the same socio-economic opportunities.

James Lee goes further, arguing that “reverse racism” is a fiction cooked up by white conservatives “to justify their continued hostility towards Blacks.”

Sorry, but reverse discrimination is real. I was once ordered to practice it (forbidden to hire a job applicant because he was male). If you try to define it away by saying racism is something only whites can do, you’re forgetting the core principle: judge people without regard to color. Racism is racism, whether black or white.

5. Reflect on your laughter. James Lee says he’s “laughing along with” Sherrod’s audience because “It’s funny to see how foolish it is to use Whiteness as a crutch when you are in dire straits—That is funny—because the poor farmer was acting like a fool to bite the hand that was trying to feed him. What ISN’T funny about that?” Dissatisfied Customer sarcastically replies: “Yeah, Let’s laugh at those uppity white folk. A man feeling shame should have to go crawling on his belly to get help, he shouldn’t be too prideful.”

Dissatisfied Customer is right. Is it really OK to laugh at Spooner? Sherrod attributed his arrogance to racism, but what’s the evidence for that charge? Spooner’s wife says it wasn’t about race: “That’s just his way.” We don’t know enough to judge him. Neither did Sherrod’s audience. To laugh at him in that situation is cruel. White people, too, deserve compassion.

6. Why did the audience laugh? Were they laughing at Spooner? Roommate Y challenges that assumption, describing the arc of Sherrod’s narrative this way:

She is given a chance to redeem herself and be the bigger person by helping the white farmer as much as she could and FAILS. This type of irony (a lapse in faith) is usually met by laughter in the church. … She had a choice, thought it was going to make up for all that she had faced at the time and it didn’t. It only showed her to be just as ignorant as those that discriminated against her. There are two kinds of laughter in the south: “Haha, that was an incredible joke” and “Wow, that’s pretty sad.” Haven’t you ever heard of country music …

Is this interpretation correct? I don’t know. But it’s plausible, and it underscores how careful we should be in attributing motives, particularly in contexts we don’t understand.

7. Don’t compare race to politics. Alex Gendler rejects my comparison of political tribalism to racial tribalism. In both cases, I argued, “We see the group and misjudge the individual.” Gendler replies: “I’m so sick of seeing people make this lazy equivalence, particularly conservatives that whine about being ‘discriminated’ against. … Race is something you’re born with. Political beliefs are something you choose.”

That’s true. In this and other respects, racial stereotyping is different from political stereotyping. But they share a common lesson: Treat people as individuals.

8. We didn’t need the whole video to see that the excerpt was misleading. Jon points out that in the original excerpt “you can tell that it’s set up and she has a follow-up point that’s going to contradict what her initial thoughts were. … What really, really worries me is that it got so big and that so many people were apparently unable to recognize that more of the speech was missing.”

You’re exactly right, Jon. The excerpt ended with her saying: “That’s when it was revealed to me that, y’all, it’s about poor versus those who have, and not so much about white—it is about white and black, but it’s not—you know, it opened my eyes, ‘cause I took him to one of his own—” It seemed clear to me, and even to Glenn Beck, that she was pivoting to reject racism and that no judgment of her could be rendered without the rest of the video. Which underscores our collective complicity: Instead of just blaming Breitbart for “snookering” us, we should ask why we failed to take seriously what was right before our eyes.

9. The NAACP confirmed the racism of the audience. As evidence that Sherrod’s audience was applauding racism, Reader Tr repeatedly invokes this quote from NAACP President Ben Jealous: “The reaction from many in the audience is disturbing.” This is a useful example of bogus evidence. Jealous made that statement before he saw the whole video and realized he had misconstrued the audience reaction. The NAACP then retracted the statement, but it persists on the Internet, available to anyone who wants a fake “fact” (I’d call it an arti-fact) to support the charge of audience racism. Even if the NAACP hadn’t retracted the statement, the charges would be false. Never trust authority. Look at the evidence—in this case, the whole video—yourself.

10. What about her Christianity? John Springer asks:

When is Fox News going to stop talking about Sherrod as a racist secular communist socialist redistributionist blah blah blah and start praising her as the good CHRISTIAN woman that she revealed herself to be at the end of the speech. She bears witness to evil, she confesses to the evil in her own heart, and she testifies that GOD showed her the light and led her on the right path.

Good point, John. Too often, we filter out what doesn’t fit our preconceived narrative.

And, finally, the best one-liner, courtesy of Russell Dominique: “Breitbart’s only hope is the all-white jury.”

Thanks for the comments, everybody. If you have more to say, you know where to find the button. Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter. William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: