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On Sherrod, blame White House, NAACP

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • Ruben Navarrette says Sherrod believes NAACP responsible for ruckus over her speech
  • He says White House intent on being post-racial, overreacts to any race issue that touches it
  • White House gave others 2nd chances; here, it let itself get cowed by right-wing media
  • Navarrette: Appalling how fast NAACP, administration threw Sherrod under bus for politics

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist, an NPR commentator and a regular contributor to

San Diego, California (CNN) -- What does the rhetorical feud between the Tea Party and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have to do with the case of Shirley Sherrod, a black former Agriculture Department employee who resigned this week under pressure from the Obama administration?

Everything, if you ask Sherrod.

"[The NAACP] is the reason why this happened," Sherrod told CNN's Tony Harris. "They got into a fight with the Tea Party, and all of this came out as a result of that."

Before we get to "all of this," props to Attorney General Eric Holder. Last year, in a speech during Black History Month, Holder argued that the United States is "a nation of cowards" that can't talk about race. He was right. And now it turns out Americans are even more cowardly when it comes to talking about racism -- real or alleged.

Real: Posters at Tea Party events showing President Obama depicted as a monkey, an African witch doctor or Buckwheat, the black character from the Little Rascals; and the White House with a lawn full of watermelons.

Video: Cooper: Sherrod was smeared
Video: Defamation suit considered
Video: Anatomy of a smear campaign

Alleged: Cooked-up accusations by conservatives that Sherrod essentially confessed to having discriminated against a white farmer by not helping him as much as she could have because he acted "superior" to her.

I remember, during the 2008 election, hearing self-identified white people call into conservative radio shows to express the fear that Obama, if elected, would favor African-Americans and discriminate against whites. That remains one of the administration's biggest insecurities, so much so that it overcompensates with a hair-trigger response when confronted with allegations of racism against whites.

Which brings us to what happened to Sherrod.

Sherrod, as most of us now know, was forced to resign after a video clip surfaced of her discussing her dealings with a white farmer in 1986 while she worked for a nonprofit organization. Sherrod told the audience that the farmer was "trying to show me he was superior to me." As a result, she said, she "didn't give him the full force of what I could do."

If you listen to the whole speech, it's obvious that Sherrod was sharing the story as a way of explaining the evolution over time of her own consciousness on race issues. Eventually, she said, she came to see beyond color and realize that the most critical divide in America isn't between black and white, but between the haves and the have-nots. And she helped the farmer.

It's clear that Sherrod got a raw deal in all this, but let's also be clear that she got that raw deal not just from the media and from right-wingers intent on playing racial gotcha, but also from the Obama administration.

In fact, I'd argue, the administration deserves most of the blame. The buck stops with the White House, or at least it should. If Obama didn't want Sherrod out, then he could have stopped her from resigning. I'm afraid he didn't do that because this whole awkward story interfered with the fantastical narrative he's desperately trying to spin that his administration is "post-racial."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack like a good soldier, took responsibility, apologized to Sherrod and offered her her job back. Sherrod says she's considering it. But she told CNN that the USDA official who "harassed" her into resigning told her that the White House wanted her gone.

What's more, some administration officials get second, third and fourth chances. (Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner didn't pay his own taxes but now supervises the Internal Revenue Service; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano falsely declared that the 9/11 hijackers came through Canada when all 19 came through the United States, and has made a series of other misstatements.) With others, it's one strike and you're out.

Conservative bloggers and media outlets like Fox News only have as much power as we give them, and the White House gives them too much.

"I don't feel good about it because I know I didn't do anything wrong," Sherrod said of her departure. "During my time at USDA, I gave it all I had."

Another thing that Sherrod doesn't feel good about is the over-the-top statement the NAACP initially rushed to release backing Vilsack in a transparent attempt to portray itself as colorblind. "Racism is about the abuse of power," said Benjamin Jealous, NAACP president and CEO. "We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers. Her actions were shameful."

Oh, please. Talk about overcompensating. Abuse of power? Did Jealous even understand the story? Sherrod's dealing with the white farmer happened long before she went to work for the USDA. What's really appalling is the ease with which Jealous -- and the White House -- threw a black official under the bus to serve their own petty political interests.

The NAACP later walked back Jealous' statement and said it was reviewing its handling of the case. But the damage was already done. If this is what we can expect from an organization pushing the "advancement of colored people," I'd hate to hear from someone who wants us all to go backward.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.