The debacle surrounding the virtual lynching of black agriculture official Shirley Sherrod has left everyone involved scrambling for cover. President Obama, while not directly linked to the premature decision to fire Sherrod, called her Thursday to apologize. Video provocateur Andrew Breitbart has insisted he was not after Sherrod but after the NAACP. Fox News' Glenn Beck displayed a time line on his show to argue he only covered the story after Sherrod was shown to have been unfairly dismissed.
But the role played by black leaders in this tragic story deserves a closer look. It tells us a lot about the state of black leadership in America and the lack of courage among these leaders in the face of the relentless campaign from the conservative right to demonize black America. When the incriminating video first aired, implying that Sherrod had discriminated against a white farmer, the NAACP quickly repudiated Sherrod, defining her words as ''appalling, shameful, intolerable and racist.'' CNN's Roland Martin expressed solidarity with the NAACP, saying its admonishment was correct.
When the truth came to light — that the video posted by Breitbart was heavily edited to dilute Sherrod's anecdotal story of racial reconciliation — NAACP president Ben Jealous retracted his organization's repudiation, claiming they had all been ''snookered'' by Fox News and Breitbart. Jealous said the orchestrated smear campaign represented a ''teachable moment'' for activists and journalists.
I beg to differ. For black political and community leaders, media pundits and voters, this is not just a ''teachable moment.'' It's our moment of reconciliation, our moment to take a stand. In an interview with Sean Hannity, Breitbart said he released the truncated Sherrod video in response to the NAACP's use of ''propaganda'' to smear the Tea Party. It was a classic pot-kettle maneuver from a member of the camp that has resurrected and expertly utilized fear-based, Nazi-era propagandizing techniques. Judging by the right's record, the Sherrod affair is just the warm-up act before the fall elections. It's a safe bet that race-based attacks will be part of the propaganda war to drive Obama from office.
Wake Up, Stand Up
Rest assured, the propaganda war is in full swing. With a presidential election on the horizon, black leaders and black media must adopt a new code of conduct. Before the media's next ''big thing,'' we must identify the puppets and puppet masters — the race baiters and power brokers who exploit America's fears and pull black leaders' strings. Now, more than ever, we have to recognize the indications of weak black leadership and deep racial conditioning.
In the ongoing battle for equality, opportunity and progress, it's imperative that we fully understand the new racial paradigm. We are but a few decades removed from the most heinous forms of racial barbarity and oppression, yet black people are expected to be contrite, apologetic and on the defensive so as not to be considered ''racist.''
A week before the Sherrod incident, NAACP members caught hell from conservatives after voting for a resolution demanding that the Tea Party ''repudiate the racists'' in its ranks. No doubt, the NAACP leader's knee-jerk response to Sherrod's supposed controversial remarks was motivated by a burning desire to acquiesce, to appear fair and balanced. Unfortunately, it is an attempt to please an unfair and unbalanced opposition that could care less about compromising overtures.
Considering the source, high-profile blacks should have vetted Breitbart and Fox News' story before trashing Sherrod. It's an indictment of black leadership (and that includes President Obama) if they aren't willing to fight for what's right even when it crosses into the unsavory realm of race.
The stakes are higher for people denied opportunity for centuries. It's reckless to abide with black leaders who place their own needs above the collective's. This is the time for media-savvy blacks, like the National Association of Black Journalists, to use their skills to fact-check, vet and counter rigged propaganda maneuvers. Expert black voices must emphasize the ramifications of losing the high-stakes media war. We must use our numbers and economic clout. Fox News and its advertisers should understand that there will be serious consequences if the network continues to underwrite propaganda disguised as ''fair and balanced'' news.
The story of an innocent black woman who became a pawn in the high stakes ''gotcha'' media game also speaks to the mercenary component of politics. Americans, repulsed by the idea that opportunistic media manipulators can destroy innocent lives, want the boundaries of decency reinforced.
According to recent news reports, Sherrod has been asked to consider a new and ''unique'' position with the USDA. This doesn't erase the fact that the NAACP and White House officials sacrificed Sherrod for reasons of self-interest. In an evolving environment dictated by a post-racial fantasy, we can ill afford brainwashed, compromising leadership.
A serious blow was struck against segregation 55 years ago when Rosa Parks refused to vacate a seat for a white passenger. Black leaders need to remember that progress inched forward because a real black hero remained seated on the bus — unlike Shirley Sherrod, a modern-day hero who was thrown under it.
Tom Burrell is a marketing communications pioneer, founder and former CEO of Burrell Communications, and an Advertising Hall of Fame inductee. He is the author of Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority (Smiley Books).