It’s been about two weeks now since the name Shirley Sherrod first blazed across the headlines — when a misleading blog post, accusing Sherrod of racism, led to her immediate firing by the Department of Agriculture on orders from the White House. The firestorm since has highlighted a word that’s long been a political football: race.

President Obama is calling for a new national dialogue on race. Last week journalist Eric Deggans called the Sherrod case “our newest Rorschach test” on race, adding that it’s “the one scab America can’t stop picking, an itchy friction between black and white that will remain with us for generations, still.”

In the meantime, there are some lessons to be learned beyond the spin.

I’m embarrassed to admit that until last week, I’d not heard of either Sherrod or her husband, civil rights hero Charles Sherrod, one of the co-founders of the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Even without that knowledge, I hope that I’d have responded to a clip from Sherrod’s March 2010 speech to the NAACP, posted as “proof” that a black USDA employee had discriminated against white farmers, by asking one simple question: “Where’s the rest of the tape?”

The 43-minute video (transcript here) should, as University of Maryland professor Sherrilyn Ifill wrote last week, “be required listening for those who want to understand the arc of race and racism in America and the possibilities for redemption in this country.”

If Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had seen the whole video, he’d have heard the full story: Sherrod’s dilemma, 25 years ago, about whether to help a white farmer when so many black farmers were suffering, and how she decided to overcome her own prejudices and do so. (That white family has since spoken up in support of Sherrod.) Vilsack also would have learned about the genesis of Sherrod’s misgivings–how her father had been beaten to death by members of the Ku Klux Klan when she was 17 years old. And if he’d listened to the whole speech, he’d have learned about another remarkable woman: Sherrod’s mother, Grace Hall Miller,  who stared down those same Klansmen a week later, going on to serve for more than 34 years on her local school board.

But when Vilsack received the call from the White House that day, it was not to ask him to look into the Sherrod story. It was to fire her, before the story took on a life of its own elsewhere, before the right-wing noise machine could tag as racist the administration of America’s first African-American president. Benjamin Jealous, the NAACP’s new president, similarly denounced Sherrod before he watched his group’s own video — something for which he’s been rightly held to task by women, including former NAACP communications staffer Amy Alexander and others who wondered if a man would have been as instantly thrown under the bus.

When the truth came out, TV commentators were blaming the NAACP and the Obama administration (ridiculed for the quick firing by The Daily Show, which drew a parallel with “The Apprentice” and Donald Trump). Which is what was intended by the political operatives for whom the slander was simply business as usual. Andrew Breitbart, who originated the story, claims he was given only a partial tape, but he was happy to include it among other anti-Obama screeds on his site. To Breitbart and some others, politics is a blood sport, and the Sherrod episode is merely part of his mission to fight policies he disagrees with by any means necessary. From Breitbart’s perspective, in some ways the nature of the offense is almost irrelevant. I’m fairly sure that if we had Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin as president instead of Barack Obama, we’d be looking at a barrage of misogyny that would dwarf any we’ve seen in 30 years. The intent is to injure.

Even if a woman were the country’s commander-in-chief, it’s likely that I’d still be writing today about a woman wronged. But it might not have been this one. In the reality of August 2010, the weapons used in this fight are old news, echoing the ones that killed Sherrod’s father. Over the years, an array of code words and images have emerged, meant to incite anger and fear: Quotas. Crime. Welfare queens. Riots.

The 21st century has added a few new ones —Anchor babies, madrassas, Ground Zero mosque — as well as a phenomenon that prompted the Sherrod fiasco: a kind of funhouse-mirror set of reversals, where “racism” is used to describe the actions of people of color. As Joan Walsh said in Salon, this reversal is itself criminal:

This is crazy. The fact is, black people were enslaved, they were disenfranchised, they faced legal and illegal discrimination, they have been beaten and lynched and murdered in every gruesome way, in the very recent past, and they now face enduring forms of social and economic discrimination (check out the story of how African Americans with good credit were pushed into subprime loans, if you doubt there’s racism today). We have also made great racial progress, and we now have a black president. Both those sets of facts happen to be true. We have to be able to talk about both of them. But if we have to stipulate, now that we have a black president, that any black person who’s ever said anything negative about a white person, for any reason, can now be called an anti-white “racist,” we have lost the debate, permanently.

When Obama was elected, my brother said briskly, “Well, that’s it. Now people can stop claiming there’s discrimination.” Hollow words. After the election, an acquaintance congratulated me on the election of “your head n****er in charge;” a few months later, protesters shouted worse at a civil rights hero, Rep. John Lewis, as he walked across the Washington Mall. The 2008 election inaugurated a particularly vicious revival of all the code words, and a far more explicit deployment of what used to be called the “Southern strategy” by candidates, now extended (as Walsh also notes) to all 50 states.

Charles Sherrod said last week: “The attack on my wife has opened up an avalanche of discussion on a tabooed subject … RACE. It is a blessing to be an instrument of God’s GRACE.” And everyone from the president to journalist Ifill agrees that such discussion is only way to derail this train: tear open the scab and sterilize it for good. I agree, with one caveat: Whites can’t and shouldn’t rely on people of color to keep the dialogue going. Like many people, I instinctively turned to African-American writers like Ifill, The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell to help me process what had happened.

I was heartened to hear Harris-Lacewell, on The Rachel Maddow Show last week, declare that the situation’s not that dire: “Look, white voters are going to have to the prove to me that they deserve this label of racist and afraid—because the last time that they had an opportunity to vote nationally, they actually got together in an interracial coalition across the country, including places like North Carolina, that went blue…And so, I‘m not yet convinced that white people are this malleable, manipulated into being scared.” But it’s not fair to look to these thinkers to reassure us, or to educate the rest of the country.

So I wonder what such a dialogue can actually look like, when so many are not arguing in good faith. If it happens, I know it will be without the chief offenders: Rush Limbaugh, who tags the president’s health care plan with the 19th-century concept of “reparations;” not Andrew Breitbart, who paradoxically calls himself a “fighter against racial injustice,” and whose Sherrod slam followed his success with a similar (if more complex) video  scam that destroyed a 70-year-old community-organizing nonprofit; and not Glenn Beck, whose delusional charts reflect the reversals of that funhouse mirror.

So what are the lessons to be drawn from the Sherrod fiasco? That vicious politics do not constitute journalism. That any kind of national dialogue sparked by this has to be treated like a public-health campaign, one that treats the funhouse mirror and the “Southern strategy” as poisonous infections in a very old scab. And that if this campaign doesn’t happen, we have to look again at that old definition of insanity: to do the same thing over and over again and expect your results to improve each time.

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