The first was 9/11, which, along with lesser acts of terrorism that followed, triggered legitimate fears among many Americans, while also inviting inappropriate prejudice against those of Muslim lineage. Then came increases in illegal immigration in the Southwest at a time of severe nationwide unemployment, making latent bias against Latinos boil over. And there was, of course, the election of the nation's first black president, which has become an emotional call to action among closeted and cowardly Americans for whom equal rights is more an abstract concept than a philosophical way of life.
Within this triad of racial hatred, the bigotry exposed by Obama's Presidency is in some respects the most painful, and yet the easiest to understand. The election of a black chief executive did not, in and of itself, move the line that separates the fair from the biased. It did, however, underscore how far the nation had progressed to that point, and it challenged – perhaps even dared – the prejudiced among us to reveal themselves, which is what they are doing.
Overt acts of racism can be limited by laws or curbed by social pressure, but an actual shift in the nation's consciousness takes generations to accomplish. Moreover, each period of meaningful racial progress, such as occurred in the mid-sixties, is often preceded by vocal and even violent outbursts, as the fearful become more threatened.
In his memorable speech on race during the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama spoke of his white grandmother, "a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe." People who struggle, and sometimes fail, to overcome the fear that leads to racism are nonetheless, said Mr. Obama, "a part of America, this country that I love."
Such compassion was sorely lacking among administration officials who reacted in knee-jerk style last week when the deliberately distorted video of Shirley Sherrod, an official in the Agriculture Department and an African-American, caused a political and media firestorm. Although it was not clear at first, Sherrod was actually using her own life experiences to underscore how racial bias is difficult to overcome - a process that in her case took many years, and was similar in many ways to what President Obama had recalled about his grandmother.
For all the parsing of Sherrod's speech, little attention has been given to the message she actually sought to deliver at the NAACP dinner last March, on the 45th anniversary of her father's funeral. He was shot in front of three white witnesses by a white man, who an all-white jury refused to indict. That's when she dedicated her life to helping black Americans escape the racial hatred that her family faced.
"I've come to realize," she explained, "that we have to work together and – you know, it's sad that we don't have a room full of whites and blacks here tonight, because we have to overcome the divisions that we have."
"Our communities are not going to thrive…our children won't have the communities that they need to be able to stay in and live in and have a good life if we can't figure this out. White people, black people, Hispanic people, we all have to do our part to make our communities a safe place, a healthy place, a good environment."
Added President Obama at week's end: "If there's a lesson to be drawn from this episode, it's that rather than us jumping to conclusions and pointing fingers at each other, we should all look inward and try to examine what's in our own hearts."
That's a slow and painful process, as Shirley Sherrod discovered, as must we all.
© Peter Funt. This column was first distributed by Cagle Cartoon Syndicate.