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Commentary: Racing to judgments on race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 9, 2010 - In American politics, as in society at large, the issue of race is often likened to the proverbial 800-pound gorilla lurking in the corner. That metaphor is misleading. Race is better understood as the irritable 8,000-pound bull snorting in the middle of the living room that everybody tiptoes around, hoping not to provoke the beast.

Though the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune had long before robbed me of idealism, I was one of the deluded souls who thought the election of Barack Obama might do something to ameliorate the situation. After all, simple math indicates that the 53 percent of the popular vote that the black candidate garnered had to include a lot of white people. In the event, this triumph of civil rights over ingrained bias was indeed transformational -- it made things worse.

The latest round of nuttiness began a week or so ago with charges from the NAACP that the Tea Party movement was fueled by racism. This allegation was lent a certain credibility by the posters of the president in white face that are often displayed at rallies, as well as by the states' rights protestors in Confederate uniforms who sometimes show up.

Tea Partiers bridled at the overly broad generalization, and NAACP CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous subsequently clarified his organization's commentary, explaining that the remarks referred to peripheral elements of movement. The whole controversy could have died there, and we could have been spared yet another national embarrassment, were it not for -- what else? -- a blogger.

Andrew Breitbart posted a strategically edited video on his website, BigGovernment.com, that purported to demonstrate that it was the NAACP, and not the maligned Tea Partiers, who were the real racists. In it, a black USDA official, the now famous Shirley Sherrod, explains to an NAACP audience how she was able to screw over a poor, white farmer 24 years ago when she worked for the nonprofit Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.

As we later found out, the full text of Ms. Sherrod's remarks delivered a diametrically opposed message. She addressed the need to transcend individual differences to recognize our mutual humanity so that we could combat the common enemy of poverty. Of course, that kind of humanitarian nonsense has no place in the blogoshpere, and Breitbart's video was an instant hit.

When word got out that Glenn Beck planned to feature the inflammatory video on his Fox News program, the administration panicked and Sherrod was asked to resign. Though Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gamely volunteered to take one for the team by claiming the decision to sack Sherrod was his alone, it would appear that higher authorities were involved.

Sherrod reports that USDA Undersecretary Cheryl Cook called her while she (Sherrod) was traveling by car and advised that the "White House" wanted her resignation. Cook was reportedly so anxious to conclude the matter that she directed Sherrod to pull to the side of the road and resign via her Blackberry. The NAACP also promptly condemned Sherrod's remarks.

Once somebody finally got around to listening to Sherrod's speech in its entirety, there was enough egg on important faces to make an omelet for Jurassic Park. As she accepts apologies from the president on down and considers various job offers, she also contemplates legal action against Breitbart.

Sherrod and her husband, incidentally, had previously been awarded a $13 million share of the settlement from a case that alleged racial discrimination against the Agriculture Department. Though that money has yet to be paid and the couple's share must be split with other members of the farming cooperative they ran, Breitbart might want to call a lawyer because Sherrod's obviously no stranger to the courtroom.

Interestingly, once the truth came out, the same right-wing bloggers and news sources that had perpetrated the deception immediately condemned the administration and the NAACP for rushing to judgment before all the facts were known. This response illustrates both the double-edged sword unsheathed by claims of racism and the venerable fallacy of trying to please your critics.

In Sherrod's case, the supposedly wronged farmer and his wife went public to explain that she had not only saved their farm, but they considered her to be a personal friend. Game, set, match. Rarely are discrimination complaints resolved in such clear-cut fashion.

Currently, there is a debate underway as to whether downtown St. Louis is a hotbed of racism. City officials have called for a crackdown on three Washington Avenue nightclubs that regularly feature "hip-hop" nights. These events attract crowds that are predominately young and black. They also have engendered a spate of criminal complaints, including several recent shootings that call into question the viability of the renovated entertainment district.

Being a middle-aged white guy, I can't comment authoritatively about the aesthetics of hip-hop music or its potential to spawn violence. I can understand, however, how an enforcement effort concentrated primarily against blacks would appear to be racist. On the other hand, to the extent that said effort is intended to suppress an offending behavior, it may also be necessary.

Jim Crow laws barred people because of who they were; legitimate criminal ordinances sanction people because of what they do. Just as it was disingenuous for the news sources who broke the Sherrod story to condemn the administration for believing it, so too is it ridiculous for a group that commits an inordinate amount of crime to blame the police for picking on them.

During the past two years for which complete statistics are available -- 2008 & 2009 -- there were 188 persons arrested for the crime of murder in the city. Of these suspects, 173 (92 percent) were black males, 9 (4.7 percent) were black females, 5 were white males (2.6 percent) and 1 (0.5 percent) was a white female.

Of course, the vast majority of black citizens are not criminals, and they are victimized disproportionately by violent crime, comprising about 90 percent of city homicide victims. But with offender numbers like these, is it really that surprising the police have more encounters with African Americans than with other groups?

The cops didn't create the socio-economic conditions that gave rise to the problem; they're merely charged with trying to provide public safety in the world as it exists. At present in St. Louis, the chief of police is African American, as are three of the four sitting commissioners on the police board. That hardly seems like a cast of characters intent on bringing apartheid to downtown.

It strikes me that we all can benefit from the lessons learned in the Sherrod incident. While it's impossible to please your critics, it is possible for reasonable people to bridge their differences on behalf of the common good.

M.W.Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon