Exactly one year ago, I published a book entitled,Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton. My publisher, Palgrave Macmillan, has decided to re-print in paperback and they’d like me to change the title to “…from Kennedy to Obama” and add a chapter about the president.
I’ve been blogging since April 2009 and haven’t written much about President Obama, a deliberate choice, because I am reflective in nature.
By chance, my publisher asked me to write about the Obama administration’s treatment of black women the week of the Shirley Sherrod incident.
I don’t know how much I can add to this conversation now that New York Times columnist, Bob Herbert wrote a brilliant piece entitled, “Shirley Sherrod Thrown to the Wolves.” His opening paragraph is insightful:
The Shirley Sherrod story tells us so much about ourselves, and none of it is pretty. The most obvious and shameful fact is that the Obama administration, which runs from race issues the way thoroughbreds bolt from the starting gate, did not offer this woman anything resembling fair or respectful treatment before firing and publicly humiliating her.
When I read Herbert’s comments I thought, “How is this any different from either Lani Guinier or Dr. Joycelyn Elders?”
Many black women were hopeful about possibilities for their own expanded involvement in the political arena in January 1993 with the inauguration of President Clinton, his choice of Maya Angelou as inaugural poet, and his attempt to put blacks in his presidential cabinet. Shortly after his inauguration, Clinton nominated his friend and former classmate Lani Guinier to the prestigious and crucial post of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
Guinier’s nomination sparked an immediate firestorm of criticism from the right, which labeled Professor Guinier “Quota Queen” and assailed her for ideas expressed in her publications, most of which her opponents had not read, or which they had taken out of context and misunderstood. In the face of opposition — what one friend of Guinier’s called a “low-tech lynching” — Clinton backed down, not only withdrawing her nomination, but refusing to afford Guinier the opportunity to speak out in her own defense (and, of course, his). The result was a civil rights setback of monumental proportions.
Unfortunately, the Guinier embarrassment was followed by the scandal that engulfed Dr. Joycelyn Elders, nominated by Clinton in July of the same year, to be Surgeon General.
On December 9, 1994, Clinton asked her to resign after Elders answered a physician’s question at a professional meeting. She said teaching facts about masturbation might well be included in educating school children about their sexuality. Clinton’s response was, “Well, I’m sorry but we can’t just have any more of this and I want your resignation by 2:30 P.M.” An ousted official normally is permitted to maintain the illusion she has voluntarily stepped aside, and there is a polite exchange of letters. The White House took pains to make clear Clinton demanded Elders leave.
Not much has changed with the Obama administration. Sixteen years later, Maureen Dowd noted:
The West Wing white guys who pushed to ditch Shirley Sherrod before Glenn Beck could pounce not only didn’t bother to Google, they weren’t familiar enough with civil rights history to recognize the name Sherrod. And they didn’t return the calls and e-mail of prominent blacks who tried to alert them that something was wrong. Charles Sherrod, Shirley’s husband, was a Freedom Rider who, along with the civil rights hero John Lewis, was a key member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the ’60s.
Dowd’s column is provocative, but I disagree with several points. She argues, “We may not have a nation of cowards on race, as Attorney General Eric Holder contended, but we may have a West Wing of cowards on race.” I think we have both.
Dowd also argues “…Obama lacks advisers who are descended from the central African-American experience, ones who understand ‘the slave thing,’ as a top Black Democrat dryly puts it.” She posits that Bill Clinton never needed help fathoming Southern black culture. The only aspect ringing true is blacks in the South still have a “place,” and President Clinton tried to keep them there.
When it comes to race relations, what’s the difference between the first white president to be thought of as black, and the first president who actually is? Not much. As I think about both administrations, I ask myself if our expectations were too high for the man from Hope and the man who offered us change we could believe in.
Dowd ends her column stating, “The president shouldn’t give Sherrod her old job back. He should give her a new job: Director of Black Outreach.”
Actually, if we want better race relations, Shirley Sherrod should be the President.