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5 thoughts on this Shirley Sherrod foolishness

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on Jul 21, 2010 in Unsolicited Commentary

If you’re one of those folks lucky enough to not know who Shirley Sherrod is, stop reading this entry now and go to another website :) This easily ranks among the very dumbest fabricated political controversies I’ve seen in awhile — and I don’t want any of you complaining that I’ve wasted minutes of your life enticing you to read about it :P

For everyone else keeping up on the controversy, I just have five thoughts on it:

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1) Most people talking about this “controversy” are just regurgitating TV talking points
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I learned that earlier today when I made a comment via Twitter and got into a pair of lengthy back-and-forth discussions with one of my old roommates at N.C. State and one of my colleagues at NCCU Law. Apparently my opinion was sufficiently outrageous that several third-party observers of our conversations felt the need to argue with me via other channels… only to later concede they hadn’t actually seen anything beyond what was reported on CNN or MSNBC.

If you’re not familiar with the incident and disregarded my opening warning to skip the rest of this entry (last chance! turn back now!), it all began on Monday with this entry at BigGovernment.com, a website run by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart. It features commentary from Breitbart claiming the NAACP is hypocritical on race issues and is coupled with two clips of Ms. Sherrod speaking at the local NAACP’s Freedom Fund Banquet. In the clips Ms. Sherrod tells a tale of being approached by a white farmer in need of help to save his farm from foreclosure, and she “didn’t give him the full force of what [she] could do” because he was white. The moral of her story was her later realization that issues of race are often more accurately characterized as issues of class, or in Ms. Sherrod’s words “it’s about poor versus those who have”.

Within a day Sherrod was forced to resign by Secretary of Agriculture Tommy Vilsack and was denounced as a racist by NAACP President Ben Jealous1 — both clearly overreacting out of fear they would be seen as defending reverse racism. Then everyone reversed course a day later, claiming Ms. Sherrod’s remarks were taken out of context, and the NAACP leadership even having the guile to claim it was “snookered” by Fox News (which hadn’t run anything about the story until after Ms. Sherrod was fired by Vilsack and denounced by Jealous) before posting what the NAACP claims is the “full” video on its website. The airwaves are now replete with everyone hurling the “racist” label at everyone else.

The whole thing has been so absurdly outrageous, so predictable, so orchestrated, that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching a movie. It’d be a farcical comedy if it wasn’t our federal government and the leadership of one of the nation’s oldest advocacy groups taking part as primary actors…

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2) Shirley Sherrod shouldn’t have been fired…
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Every law student in the country is familiar with the twin concepts of Statutes of Limitation and Statutes of Repose.

For the non-law-inclined, in overly-simplified terms a Statute of Limitation sets a deadline for filing a lawsuit once you realize you have a claim; they’re designed to prevent a Plaintiff from “sleeping on his/her rights” to the unfair detriment of the Defendant, who may not be able to mount a defense if records have been disposed or other evidence is lost. In North Carolina, for instance, the statute of limitations for most offenses is three years with one-year extensions in certain circumstances (such as when you don’t discover the injury until after the SOL date has passed).

In equally over-simplified terms, a Statute of Repose is kind of like a SOL on steroids. After the deadline set in the Statute of Repose you can’t file a lawsuit at all under any circumstances, even if you didn’t know you had a claim. These are most common in product liability cases, where a SOR is commonly set based on the date the product was manufactured or the date it was initially purchased by a consumer.

Both the SOL and SOR are essentially decisions by society (through our legislators) that certain offenses are more or less significant than others. Again using NC as my example, most misdemeanors have an SOL of 2 years while violent misdemeanors and felonies have no SOL at all (you might have heard the line in Law & Order episodes or other crime dramas that “There’s no statute of limitations on murder” in most jurisdictions).

Even if we assume the very worst about Ms. Sherrod — that her videotaped admission of not providing the “full force of what [she] could do” was true and a result of her personal bias toward the man seeking her help — it was an admission about something that happened over 20+ years ago. There are numerous crimes that society has decided aren’t significant enough to be prosecuted after 20+ years, along with nearly every tort in nearly every state. Had Ms. Sherrod committed professional malpractice in any other profession, the Statute of Repose in North Carolina would have passed in the mid-90s.

Unless there was some kind of indication Ms. Sherrod was still engaging in this kind of discriminatory conduct, as opposed to simply relating a story of personal growth, this particular instance in the 1980s should have been left alone as a dead issue and her job security shouldn’t have even been questioned. Instead she was thrown under the bus by her government employer and vilified by the NAACP out of fear of the political fallout if it appeared they were supporting reverse racism.

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3) …but that hardly makes her a paragon of civic virtue
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In a predictable fashion that only politics can provide, once the “full” video was posted the ensuing political commentary became totally unhinged from reality. Commentators started insisting that not only were Ms. Sherrod’s remarks “taken out of context” but that she had actually done nothing wrong in the first place.

Both claims make no logical sense.

If you haven’t already done so, go back to those entries I listed in #1 above — read the entry on BigGovernment.com and its video snippets, then watch the “full” video on the NAACP website. If you just want to listen to the farm-related story in the “full” video, it’s from 16:23 to 21:26.

I’ll wait until you get back ;)

Even in Breitbart’s original entry (the one that has since been blasted by the White House and the NAACP alike as “selectively edited”) it’s clear to even a cursory observer that Ms. Sherrod’s story is one of personal growth. She was admittedly derelict in her job duties because of racial bias, but later learned “it’s about poor versus those who have” as opposed to race. That context is right there at the 1:44 mark in BigGovernment.com’s first clip, which is the same as 18:23 in the NAACP’s “full” video.

Where’s the lack of context?

The idea that her conduct was exemplary is also bizarre. Ms. Sherrod says very clearly and unambiguously that she “didn’t give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough.” That alone was bad enough, but she compounded her original failing by voluntarily picking out a white attorney for the farmer to use for filing bankruptcy since she figured “his own kind would take care of him.” It’s right there at 1:26 to 1:43 of the BigGovernment.com clip, which is the same as 18:06 to 18:21 of the NAACP’s “full” video.

It’s roughly akin to me (the farmer) drowning in a pool (the farmer’s debt), but because the lifeguard (Ms. Sherrod) is biased against fat (white) people and assumes I’ll float (escape foreclosure), he (she) decides to throw me a defective life preserver (Ms. Sherrod’s limited help) instead of diving in to rescue me (the “full force of what [Ms. Sherrod] could do”). Then when I’m still drowning he (she) throws a defective life jacket (the incompetent white bankruptcy attorney). Then when I’m a few seconds (hours) from death (foreclosure), he (she) calls over to another lifeguard (the black bankruptcy attorney) who dives in for the rescue.

Generally when a government actor has done something wrong, there is no tort liability for negligence against them when it’s an issue of nonfeasance, meaning the government actor simply has failed to take an action they were supposed to take. Tort liability for negligence typically does arise, though, when it’s an issue of misfeasance, meaning the government actor has taken some affirmative action but did so negligently and harmed the injured party as a result.

Based on Ms. Sherrod’s remarks, the farmer was smart enough to notice his white attorney (selected for him by Ms. Sherrod) was not doing his job and he would need someone else. But had the farmer not been that vigilant in monitoring what was going on and his farm been foreclosed, is there any question that he’d have an actionable claim for negligence against Ms. Sherrod?2

I’m sure Ms. Sherrod is a nice lady, and I take her at her word in the speech that she no longer has her former misguided views on race that led her to not fully help a white farmer and then pick out a deficient white attorney for him. She shouldn’t have been fired.

But that doesn’t mean she should be deified instead.

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4) The “full” tape isn’t even the full tape
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There’s not much to say here other than wondering what’s going on behind the scenes. The “full” tape posted by the NAACP pretty clearly is not the “full” tape. If you watch it closely you’ll notice an obvious cross-fade at the 21:00 mark where something was clearly cut out.

Why would you post something for public review and claim it’s something it isn’t?

A bigger question, for me at least: why has no one in the media noticed the missing snippet, instead breathlessly repeating that it’s the “full” tape?

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5) But none of it matters, because this entire controversy is stupid
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I’m convinced everyone commenting on this manufactured controversy has lost their minds.

To my fellow conservatives: do any of you really think pointing out racism in the NAACP would somehow mitigate racism (if found) within the Tea Party movement? Supposedly that was Andrew Breitbart’s motivation in posting his initial entry on Monday, but I vaguely recall something called the “two wrongs make a right” fallacy — which I also vaguely recall being mentioned by Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5:38-42).

Following up on that question, do you think it’s wise to issue an open challenge to folks to “prove” racist elements in the Tea Party? In Wake County alone, I’ve seen Republicans claim a black sheriff was releasing detainees because of their race, and I’ve seen Democrats justify the liberal Nanny State by claiming blacks weren’t intelligent enough to take care of themselves. I’d venture to guess that you can find racists in any mass movement in the country. It seems kind of dumb to instigate that discussion — especially when, if someone were to be pointed out using racist language, they’d just be dismissed as not being a true representative of the movement.

And to my liberal colleagues: do any of you really think government personnel are justified if they “didn’t give [someone] the full force of what [they] could do” as a result of personal bias, as long as they learn from it after the fact? Government employees at the local, state, and federal levels who merely “did enough” to barely comply with the letter of the law were often rightfully denounced during the Civil Rights era, and yet now one is being exalted because she had an epiphany after the fact.

Following up on that question, do you think it’s OK for the government to abuse one of its employees by forcing them to resign over a decades-old controversy? Claim remarks were taken out of context all you like, the fact of the matter is a good chunk of the liberal establishment in this country threw Shirley Sherrod under the bus without any investigation or critical evaluation because they were worried about electoral repercussions. The people who supposedly believe in defending “the little man” instead smeared one for the sake of political expediency.

To the media: who told you electing Barack Obama was going to lead to some “post-racial” society where race was no longer a topic of controversy? I’ve read this in so many news stories it’s comical. Huge chunks of the country don’t pay enough attention to politics to even know who the President is, much less that he’s black, much less that his blackness is supposed to influence their opinions on race. Your collective obsession with the transformative power of Big Government blinds you to the fact the overwhelming majority of voters and taxpayers prefer being able to go about their daily business without government intrusion — and that as a result the government has a very limited ability to shape their beliefs. I’ve got a litany of problems with President Obama’s politics, but the fact he didn’t usher in an illusory “post-racial” society isn’t one of them.

And to everybody: what exactly have we gained from this manufactured controversy? Sure we’ve “gained” a bunch of people getting pissed off at a bunch of other people and vice versa. And we’ve “gained” a fresh lease on life for a lot of really worn out political analogies (e.g. that opposing the unchecked expansion of a clearly incompetent federal government is tantamount to racism). And we’ve “gained” a collective recognition of the obvious point that we still live in a society where race is a Big Deal™.

But beyond that, this entire pseudo-scandal has been a waste of everyone’s time… and only highlighted the abject foolishness that now passes for racial discussion.

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That’s it from me —  I promise promise promise you this isn’t going to become a political blog, and I’ll have something law-related to write about soon :) Thanks for enduring the rant, and have a great night! :D

  1. As a former dues-paid member of the NAACP, I haven’t been impressed by President Jealous. His conduct with this incident confirms my disappointment in him and how he got (s)elected. []
  2. Assuming she was a normal government actor as opposed to a federal employee. I’m side-stepping discussion of the provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act exempting “discretionary function[s] or dut[ies]” from liability — the fact Congress hasn’t allowed a right of action where most states do is separate from whether Ms. Sherrod’s conduct was wrong IMO. []

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