The Shirley Sherrod fiasco has proven to be a story with legs and combines many of the dysfunctions in our conversations about race.
The clear villain in the story seems to be Andrew Breitbart or whomever edited the tape to leave out parts making clear that Sherrod got over her initial racial hostility and helped the farmer. Although Breitbart says he wanted to show that the crowd was reacting favorably to her description of that hostility, that doesn't justify what was done.
What Breitbart did was refuse to acknowledge the complexity of what Sherrod was saying. That's characteristic of conversations about race which generally end whenever someone decides to hurl allegations of racism.
And that is precisely what happened. The White House (and it was the White House) fired Sherrod with no questions asked. The NAACP denounced her without investigation.
Both undoubtedly did so because, while willing to charge others with racial bad faith, neither wants to be accused of it. Having contributed to a our general hysteria on matters of race, both were hoisted on their own petard.
The media - and not just the conservative media - did the same thing. Here is someone who seems to have said something that is racist. We don't let her explain. We don't consider the context. We jump all over her.
Fortunately for Sherrod, this time the story ended a bit differently. Most of the time one is accused of racism, the charge is practically irrefutable. Here the accusers quickly retreated.
That should be good news, but the hysteria continues. Now Sherrod - with her own participation - has become a political football. Two new narratives are developing. The first is that the improper accusations leveled at a black woman reflect a lack of racial progress. They do, but not in the way that this narrative wants to say. I am certainly am not prepared to declare America's racial wounds to be healed. Intemperate accusations of racism - including the NAACP's own attempts to smear the Tea Party Movement - are all too frequent.
But I'd say they reflect a reluctance to acknowledge the ways in which there has been racial progress and old paradigms of racial oppression are not as useful as they once were.
The second narrative - indulged by the NAACP, Sherrod and folks like Frank Rich - is that the whole affair was a product of the "conservative media" (not just Breitbart) and, in particular, of Fox News. But the facts don't support that. Fox was not the only network that ran with the story and it did not run it until after Sherrod was fired. If the White House and NAACP were "snookered," so was Fox News.