A Teachable Moment

From Tom Vilsack’s press conference yesterday:

I’ve learned a lot of lessons from this experience in the last couple of days. And one of the lessons I learned is that these types of decisions require time. I didn’t take the time. I should have. And as a result, a good woman has gone through a very difficult period. And I’ll have to live with that for a long, long time…..This is a teachable moment for me and I hope a teachable moment for all of us. I think it is important to understand that each of us represents this department, each of us represents the administration and the president, and that we’ve got to be very careful about our actions and our words. And we have to make sure that we — that we think before we act. I did not think before I acted. And for that reason, this poor woman has gone through a very difficult time.

Shirley Sherrod of course was the principle victim of Vilsack’s and the NAACP’s rush to judgment, but the rest of us were victims too. If Vilsack learned a lesson about the importance of managerial due diligence, prudence, and fair play, there is a larger political lesson in the Sherrod fiasco that I dearly hope the entire Obama administration takes to heart.

Accusations of reverse racism may be hard to answer, especially for America’s first African American president, but they are not Kryptonite. Obama took a lot of flack for saying the obvious about the Henry Gates incident, but let’s face it: what he said was obvious. Gates undoubtedly had a chip on his shoulder and antagonized Officer Crowley; Crowley might not have been a racist, but he didn’t exactly cover himself or his fellow policemen with glory. The people who learned the most from that embarrassment were the haters on the right–it taught them that while turnabout may not be fair play, it really takes the wind out of your opponents’ sails.

Not too long ago, when he was railing against Rand Paul for caving in on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, David Duke said that “Today it is European Americans who are the real victims of massive discrimination.” This willful falsehood is at the very heart of backlash politics, from the KKK in the 1860s to George Wallace in the 1960s and Pat Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh today.
Mark Williams was widely derided last week when he responded to the NAACP’s condemnation of the Tea Party by pointing out the “absurdity of a group that calls blacks ‘Colored People’ hurling charges of racism”; this week Breitbart and Fox News used the same tactics and got a mid-level agriculture department official’s scalp. Thankfully, their ploy was exposed.

This is silly season stuff; once the leaves start turning the right will go back to the serious business of unseating Democratic legislators, frustrating Obama initiatives, and otherwise turning back the clock to the Gilded Age. One can always hope that the reverse race card has jumped the shark, but it’s too potent–and too effective–a weapon for them to set it aside; the same thing is going to happen again.

Maybe next time the Obama people won’t blink.

2 thoughts on “A Teachable Moment

  1. I realized how much Obama understood about civil rights when I read this:

    http://seminal.firedoglake.com/diary/49812

    Specifically, the anecdote about what Obama said to Stuart Milk after awarding the Medal of Freedom to Stuart’s uncle Harvey. It’s not just clueless; it’s completely backwards.

    This woman could teach that man a lot, if he would listen:

    http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/attytood/Hosie_Miller_Shirley_Sherrods_dad_and_a_casualty_in_a_forgotten_war.html

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