US & Canada

US officials stumble on the firing of Shirley Sherrod

The BBC's Kevin Connolly in Washington questions what lessons the US government has learned from its hasty firing of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod over apparently racist remarks - and its subsequent apology to her.

Image caption Tom Vilsack told reporters at a White House press conference he accepted responsibility for the affair

You know that things have gone badly wrong in the world of American politics when politicians start talking about "teachable moments".

The phrase - presumably adopted from the gently re-assuring lexicon of psychotherapy - is meant to imply that out of embarrassment or disaster the United States has somehow learned a lesson.

Well, Shirley Sherrod has just provided America with a moment that sets new standards for teachability. The problem is, it's not entirely clear what lesson is being learned.

It ought to be something to do with tolerance but in fact it has turned out to be about the absurdity of the spin-cycle in which American journalists and politicians are intertwined and about the febrile atmosphere that surrounds any story about race.

Mrs Sherrod is the African-American official from the offices of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in rural Georgia.

You may have seen some slightly smudgy, out-of-focus footage of her addressing a meeting of a black civil rights organisation, the NAACP, and apparently explaining to approving chuckles how she'd once failed to do her utmost to help a family save their farm because they were white.

The clip, dug up by a conservative activist and replayed by Fox News, sent alarm bells ringing not just at the USDA but at the White House.

Mrs Sherrod was phoned not once but three times as she drove home - and she says the official who phoned her at the prompting of the White House was so desperate to get her to quit that she ended up pulling over to the side of the road and resigning by e-mail.

'Fall from grace'

So far so good. An example of black racism had been found and exposed, the perpetrator had been punished. More importantly, the Obama administration had restored its command over the news cycle - the top line in any story now would be Mrs Sherrod's speedy fall from grace.

Image caption Shirley Sherrod complained the department had fired her without listening to her explanation

The NAACP - and this is probably the most ludicrous part of the story - condemned her, even though she was speaking at one of its own meetings when videoed.

The point was, of course, that Mrs Sherrod's remarks had been taken out of context and were part of an impressive transformational story about how she'd come to believe that poverty rather than race was the real problem in the Deep South.

The white family - who she had indeed helped to save their farm - were found and were quick to say how wonderful she had been.

Mrs Sherrod's own father, it transpired, had been murdered by a white racist who was never prosecuted. She had reasons enough to hate, in other words, but chose instead to live by a creed of fairness and equality.

Her absurdly rapid journey from beacon of intolerance to beacon of tolerance had taken about 24 hours.

Forget race for a moment and reflect on the quality of governance in all this.

Shirley Sherrod was apparently ruthlessly dumped by people who hadn't bothered to view her entire speech, ask for a transcript or even ask for her point of view.

So quickly did the White House become involved that it looks suspiciously like there's some sort of system by which individual departments have to flag up anything with a sensitive racial component directly to Team Obama.

The trouble is that Team Obama doesn't seem to know what to do once it is alerted.

It's only a year since President Barack Obama said a white police officer who arrested a black academic in his own home had acted "stupidly".

It turned out, of course, that the case was slightly more complicated than that and Mr Obama ended up hosting the painfully awkward "beer summit" at the White House - after which the policeman and the professor merely said they had agreed to disagree on the matter.

So part of the problem may be Mr Obama's determination to demonstrate that he's doing no special favours for African Americans - after all, does anyone think Mrs Sherrod would have been fired with this haste under Clinton, or either of the Bushes?

Mid-term 'politics'

But there are bigger politics at play here. America is gearing up for high-stakes mid-term elections which will determine whether or not the Democrats will keep control of Capitol Hill. (They almost certainly won't).

Image caption Mr Vilsack said Mrs Sherrod accepted his apology and "was extraordinarily gracious"

The Tea Party movement has energised the American right in the past few months and one of the most effective tactics of the American left against it has been to argue that it's somewhat racist in tone - or at least, that it doesn't do enough to control a racist fringe.

That charge has come in the main from the NAACP, acting as a kind of proxy for the Democrats. Clearly it would limit the effectiveness of the tea-partiers if they had to spend all their energies fighting charges of racism.

So the attack on Mrs Sherrod was a kind of counter-blast from the right against the NAACP, putting it on the defensive on race and making it look frankly ridiculous.

It may seem harsh that Mrs Sherrod got caught up in it all, as collateral damage, but American politics is a tough neighbourhood in election year.

The good news is that the government has apologised to Mrs Sherrod and offered her another job.

The bad news: you could more or less bet this is another teachable moment that will go by without anybody learning anything much.

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