Turning Cannibal on Black Leadership

Sherrilyn A. Ifill
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As they say in the Budweiser commercial, "Here we go!" The Shirley Sherrod incident provided one of the most fertile and significant opportunities to focus attention on the toxic racism of the far right, the dynamics of race and class in the rural South, the cynical use of the "reverse racism" charge to ignite opposition to President Barack Obama — not to mention the dangerous hypersensitivity of the president and civil rights leaders to this charge. But instead of having that conversation, black commentators have turned cannibal on black leadership. The blogs have been burning up with demands for the resignation of NAACP president Ben Jealous, as well as commentators Dr. Boyce Watkins and Roland Martin, who all initially joined the chorus asking for Sherrod's ouster. This is not to mention the screeds against President Obama.

OK — I, too, remain angry, discouraged and frustrated by the shameful treatment of Mrs. Sherrod. But most of my attention is focused where it belongs first and foremost: on the right-wing and, in some cases, racist forces that have set up these racial pageants ever since Obama was elected president. It's urgent that those of us who seek to move this country forward work to undermine those efforts. From Sonia Sotomayor to Henry Louis Gates Jr. to Sherrod, the focus of our work should be most forcefully targeted at the root of the problem and not just the admittedly inadequate response of black leaders.


Andrew Breitbart and his crew of "reverse-racism" hustlers, who are framing the entire Obama presidency as one big affirmative action project, have been injecting a potent poison into American politics. And too many have been falling for it. Even last summer's proposed health-care reform package, which could have been resisted on legitimate grounds from the right and the left, was tarred by Rush Limbaugh as a form of "reparations."

But more dangerous than the rabid supporters of this racialized rhetoric has been the timid response of too many leaders. The mainstream media have to take up their share of the blame also, too often joining the "do you think it's racist?" brand of journalism popularized during Hurricane Katrina. Constantly asking blacks whether one plus one equals two with that quizzical "neutral" look is insulting and an abdication of journalistic responsibility. Only MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow have shown a consistent willingness to put race in historical context and to compel their guests to deal forthrightly with overt expressions of racism in our political discourse. And only they have seen fit to speak to the dangerous decision by some among the right-wing "win at all costs" forces to stoke fears about loss of gun rights to fantasies of a kind of coming racial "takeover."

Let's not forget that the NAACP took a bold and important step in calling on the Tea Party to address racism in its ranks. While the mainstream media took off on the question, "Are there racist elements in the Tea Party?" (ignoring the blatant evidence marshaled on the NAACP's Web site and other places), the NAACP refused to back down. Indeed, within 48 hours, Tea Partier Mark Williams posted a blatantly racist blog in response to the NAACP's action.

To their credit, Tea Party leaders denounced Williams, engaging in just the kind of responsible behavior that the NAACP's proposed resolution called for. But the NAACP took a great deal of heat for its decision to address racism in the Tea Party. And it was the intensity of that heat that compelled Jealous to rush carelessly to distance the organization from Sherrod. In fact, it goes further than that. Jealous and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack fell victim to the prevailing framework for contemporary racial discourse even in liberal circles: No one need take responsibility for racism because there are black racists and white racists. This is what Melissa Harris-Lacewell refers to as the Crash theory of racism, named after the hugely popular but ahistorical movie that presented a comfortingly symmetrical portrait of racism in America.


The response to Sherrod is a blow for the NAACP's credibility and for Jealous' leadership.  But it seems absurd to be calling for Jealous' head, offering "snookered" themed products for sale, and questioning the legitimacy of the civil rights organization. Are we forgetting that it alone had the courage to speak to racism in the Tea Party — something that the administration, Democratic leaders and other civil rights leaders have not seen fit to do? We should credit the organization for that step, even as we make clear to the young leader that boldness requires consistency. Some "old head" — experienced in the ways of civil rights challenges — should have told Jealous that after the organization's courageous stand against racism in the Tea Party, the fire would come, and should have prepared him to face it down calmly. In that sense, Jealous' colossal misstep reflects more broadly on the failures of coordination among our leaders, a long-standing problem of black leadership that predates Jealous' tenure.

Still, we should not, and indeed cannot, afford to discard our leaders so cavalierly — even in our commentary. President Obama is an enormously talented and effective leader, but not a perfect one. Jealous is bright, committed and ambitious, but perhaps overly confident and still feeling his way. We should push them both — hard — to seize this moment.


A young leader like Jealous needs a kitchen cabinet made up of diverse leaders outside his organization. A cabinet made up of not just traditional civil rights leaders but also activists, bloggers, columnists, former elected officials, church leaders and especially women leaders who are understandably outraged by the particularly ugly strain of vitriol directed at black women in the Obama administration, and concerned about the lack of concerted NAACP action in support of black female victims of violence and racism. But using the Sherrod incident to open a barrage of unrelated criticism of Jealous, designed to do little more than malign him and the NAACP, is selfish and silly. If Jealous has been disinclined to listen to voices outside the NAACP echo chamber in the past, as some suggest, I'm betting he'll never be more open to new voices than he is right now, if they are constructive.

President Obama should also be pushed to accept the counsel of black leaders and activists who are out here on the ground and who understand the nature of, and perhaps even the antidote to, the poison being released by the Andrew Breitbarts of the world. Making a call to Sherrod is a courtesy. Meeting with her and taking seriously her offer to help the president better understand rural poverty would signal a new way to learn the lessons of race in America.


But throwing our leaders onto the dust heap plays too neatly into the hands of Breitbart and his ilk. While we trash our leaders for their mistakes, Breitbart prepares to attend an RNC fundraiser later this summer.

Let's get our eyes back on the prize.

Sherrilyn Ifill is a civil rights lawyer and professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

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