Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Lessons from the Sermonizing of Shirley Sherrod Pt. 2


Jeffery Weiss' treatment of the Shirley Sherrod episode is an important recognition that Andrew Breitbart was not only wrong in his initial attempts to peg her as a racist based on her speech to an NAACP gather. Weiss shows he was also wrong in his efforts to walk back his accusation with the clarification that he really wanted to show the racist behavior of the NAACP, as the crowd 'cheered' as Sherrod related her reluctance to help a white farmer.

Jeff is entirely right, that the call and response reaction to Sherrod was in reaction to her 'sermonizing' as she exhorted them to move beyond issues of race - admonished black youth to take seriously their education and the opportunities that they had and the importance of black people helping one another. Far from racist, it was inspirational, the type of gathering I and countless other African-Americans are used to, when notables, political or otherwise, GOP or Democrat come before a predominately black audience and address them in an idiom to which they and the audience are accustom.

What I do not agree with in Weiss' column is his criticism of Shirley Sherrod's historical analysis of the systematic divisions imposed on poor whites and blacks by monied interests threatened by their potential alliance.

"Next, Sherrod launches into an explanation of racism in America that might have some historians scratching their heads. She starts with 17th-century indentured servitude, where people of all races were stuck for seven years of work until they gained their freedom, and nobody, she says, worried about skin color."

"But those in power worried that poor whites and poor blacks would start to cooperate, she says. And thereby created permanent black slavery to keep those poor blacks and whites divided, which led to the legacy of racism."

"So that's when they made black people servants for life. That's when they put laws in place forbidding them to marry each other. That's when they created the racism that we know of today. They did it to keep us divided. And they -- it started working so well, they said, "Gosh, looks like we've come up on something here that can last generations." And here we are over 400 years later, and it's still working."

"To which I say; Really? Black slavery, the three-continent slave trade, the plantation economy of the American South that depended on slaves, the secession of the Confederacy and the ensuing Civil War, Jim Crow and "colored" water fountains were all part of a centuries-long conspiracy by the monied class to keep poor whites and poor blacks from working together in peace? Like Rev. Wright, who has a habit of spinning out stories at odds with history, Sherrod may have been exceeding her core competencies here."

Not really.
Again, remember that Sherrod talks about a period of indentured servitude which predated the period of the Civil War, indeed predated the American Revolution.

When I was at Harvard University a few years ago, I and the group I was with had the priviledge of having dinner at the home of the late A. Leon Higgenbotham and his wife (Harvard professor) Evelyn. Higgenbotham was a retired federal judge and had recently written a two volume treatise on the legal system and race entitled 'In The Matter of Color'.

In the first chapter, in a detailed and scholarly fashion, Judge Higgenbotham outlines the near equal status that Africans, whites and Native Americans (Indians) had as indentured servants. Gradually, the laws began to be more and more restrictive in ways that favored whites and debased and denied freedoms to black slaves. Infractions for white indentured servants could result in whippings and extensions of their indentured status. Punishments for blacks increasingly would call for lifetime servitude. From 1619-1792, such laws became more and more restrictive for blacks. The first 'slave codes' were enacted in 1680 designed to ensure the status of blacks as legally inferior. An example:

'Whereas the frequent meetings of considerable numbers of Negro slaves under pretense of feasts and burials is judged of dangerous consequence it enacted that no Negro or slave may carry arms, such as any club, staff, gun, sword, or other weapon, no go from his owner's plantation without a certificate and then only on necessary occasions: the punishment twenty lashes on the bare back, well laid on. And further, if any Negro lift up his hand against any Christian he shall receive thirty lashes, and if he absent himself o lie out from his master's service and resist lawful apprehension, he may be killed and this law shall be published every six months.'

To be sure, there is no record of the business meeting in which captains of industry took council and said 'We've got to separate blacks and whites, unless they form an alliance and overthrow us.' But the general effect was convey a message to even the poorest white, that the were superior in social, economic and even legal status to a black person. It is that division that ultimately made persecution of African-Americans a part of law and culture, from 1680, until the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964...and actually beyond.

Sherrod's point is that there is a class for whom it is advantageous for poor blacks and poor whites (and working and middle class blacks and whites) to war against one another. And that recognizing this is the beginning of breaking a vicious cycle.

Shirley Sherrod was not trying to give a scholarly treatise in this speech. If she was, there are a number of references to which she could point (Higgenbotham did not 'discover' this). She could have even cited passages from C. Vann Woodward's 'The Strange Career of Jim Crow', for Jim Crow, again, was a system in which the deliberate subjugation of blacks were designed to make clear the inferiority of black people post Reconstruction. It was the only way that the South could justify the brutality of a system that ultimately resulted in the loss of more than 600,000 lives, express their intense resentment at the loss of that war and fashion a society in which whites were the superiority of whites was reassured and preserved, socially and economically.

Historians wouldn't scratch their heads. They'd say 'Amen'. And the good one's would tell us that its about high time we learned the dangers of this division.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yawn, Part 2

Gerald Britt said...

Class on this subject is over. You may now be excused for mindless, ahistorical opinionating on issues that shape our life together. However, let me warn you that interaction with more informed students who have paid attention may leave you embarrassed by insistence on points of view the demonstrate your preference for a limited and uninformed world view.

Anonymous said...

One of Ms. Sherrod's more racist comments was that the people who oppose government run health care do so because Obama is black.

Gerald Britt said...

Once again, this insistence that the mere mention of racism,or instances of racism as a supposedly intimidating charge of 'reverse racism'.

No, the observation that those who opposed health care because Obama is a black man is not racism. It was a charge leveled by blacks, Hispanics and whites. And was valid. NOT ALL of the opposition was based on the fact that the President is black, but some of it was.

It is a miserable insistence on the Breitbart and his ilk were somehow 'actually right' that keeps this canard alive. It's easier to do that than to admit that Breitbart's intimidation tactic was itself based on racism.