How It Works: Shirley Sherrod, Park51, and the Big Mistake in American Culture

Two stories in the news that had me riveted this summer.  First, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” the Park51 Islamic community center (Jon Stewart labeled it the “Community Center of Death”) that a few Muslim New Yorkers applied for permission to build in the financial district of Manhattan.  The more I read and talked to people, the more I realized that the case both was and wasn’t more complicated than I’d initially thought.

Second, like everyone else in this country, I was horrified by the situation that fell on former USDA employee Shirley Sherrod after the right-wing blogger and Tea Party booster Andrew Breitbart posted an edited video of a Georgia NAACP speech she made on his website. In the edited video, she confesses that she had worked with a white farmer in the 1980s in her capacity as an advocate for farmers and, on the basis of his race, had given him less than the full benefit of her skills.

In the full video, of course, Sherrod tells the whole story. As a child, her father was murdered by a white man in the Deep South. A succession of all-white juries refused to convict his killer. The rage and grief that this horrible crime left her with conditioned her approach to white people for years to come—including the farmer she mentions in the story.

What she goes on to say in the speech, though, is that she was wrong to treat the farmer in this way. That she realized that her grief and anger had caused her to behave in a way that was unfair and destructive. That she was fighting injustice with injustice. In her words: “Working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who haven’t. They could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to help poor people—those who don’t have access the way others have.”

A person in mourning, a grieving person, can behave in destructive ways. Grief, anger, frustration and fear—they leave us especially susceptible to The Big Mistake that is racism—the assumption that the many are guilty of the crimes of the few.

It’s easy when you don’t know people. Suppose that you lived in a state of happy ignorance about the inhabitants of the sovereign city-state of Monaco. All of a sudden there was a major media event involving Monacans. So a couple of guys from Monaco went on a shooting spree in Manhattan in the name of issues important to Monacans. CNN and Fox are running 24-hour coverage. These particular Monacans, it seems, had declared war on the United States. They claimed that Monaco and the Monacan diaspora were behind them. You’d never given a second thought to Monacans. Suddenly, you have little choice but to formulate an opinion. “Wow,” you’d say. “Those Monacans are crazy!” And you’d go from there.

Unless, that is, you were from Monaco, unless you were surrounded by Monacans and tended to have ordinary, uninteresting interactions with them every day. “Wow,” you’d say. “Those guys are crazy.”

That’s the Big Mistake. We all have this tendency to make the one stand for the many, to fill up our conceptual categories with whatever information we have available.  We give disproportionate weight to the first information that we come across—or to the glaring stereotypes. And when you add anger into the mix, that Big Mistake takes on a new urgency. Somehow, when you are the victim, it becomes that much harder to shake yourself out of the lingering indictment of a group rather than a few individuals. That’s how it works.

The persistent anger surrounding 9/11 has the same shape. People who don’t know members of the 0.3%-2% of the US population who consider themselves Muslim (or the other 1.6 billion Muslims around the world) have no frame of reference for putting the actions of a few individuals—widely regarded as lunatics, the kind of people you kept your kids away from—into context. And somehow that vivid sense of being victimized makes it that much harder to accept that frame even when it’s given to you. This was essentially the position taken by the Anti-Defamation League on Cordoba House, when Executive Director Abraham Foxman said, referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational … or bigoted.”

Now this is the complicated part, because I understand this viewpoint; I believe in the need to honor grief and even, to a certain extent, that feeling of being victimized, to not just write those important feelings off as a “mistake” and move on. But I also think it’s a cop-out, a weak reading of the ADL’s mission: to “fight … anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defend … democratic ideals and protect … civil rights for all.” Coming out of a context of fighting anti-Semitism, the ADL should know that minority groups are the most susceptible to media distortion and misconceptions—and the most vulnerable to reprisal (the fact that there was a serious debate about using back channels like the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to deny a group their right to freedom of religion is perfect evidence of this). Anti-Semitism works the same way: a few tired, contemptible stereotypes about Jews projected onto an entire group by ignorant people who probably have never even shaken hands with a Jewish guy. This is the simple part: the Big Mistake is still a mistake.

In labs, it’s been shown that if you shock two rats in the same box at the same time, they will immediately attack one another. The primatologist Frans de Waal has pointed out that anyone who’s ever hit their finger with a hammer and then gone through that weird sensation of sticking their head up and looking for someone to blame knows how easy it is to be picked up by anger and carried somewhere you didn’t expect. Grief and anger grab hold of us and won’t let us go. They prevent us from solving the problems that led to tragedy in the first place—in this case, a global-scale misunderstanding on the part of Americans and the varied and diverse Muslim communities around the world.

It’s not about “tolerance;” it’s not even about “forgiveness.” Sherrod didn’t make a decision to “tolerate” whites or to forgive whites for the actions of one contemptible white who claimed to be representing all whites in a war of whites against blacks—which is not to say that whites don’t have a responsibility to recognize our privilege and the legacies of victimization that we can’t help but inherit. But she realized that she had made a mistake, The Big Mistake of holding the many accountable for the one, that instead of making decisions based on her own values—compassion, healing, love—she was becoming an echo of the man who had made her a victim in the first place. Instead of ending his war, she was fighting in it. Today, as the world now knows, the farmer she worked with in Georgia back in 1986, Roger Spooner, says that Sherrod is “still a friend.” As long as we accept al-Qaeda’s premise—that they speak for Muslims, that the US and Islam are at war, that an interfaith Islamic Center in downtown Manhattan is impossible—we are fighting their war, instead of ending it.

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4 Responses to How It Works: Shirley Sherrod, Park51, and the Big Mistake in American Culture

  1. randalljones says:

    I don’t understand why those on the political left never bring up US long history collaborating with jihadis, dictators, and kings. (See Robert Dreyfuss’ book Devil’s Game).
    Are you are aware during Cold War, USA gave Afghan children violent, extremist textbooks? (See this Washington Post article

  2. donovanschaefer says:

    @Randall: Yes, that’s an important issue. It helps to frame the question about anti-Muslim racism, too, by pointing out that conflict between America and Muslims is a very, very recent invention. The notion that “Islam” and “the West” are doomed to engage in a clash of civilizations is undermined by the fact that the United States worked hand in hand with Muslims in the recent past.

    Unfortunately, the policies of the US, the British, and other colonial powers often ended up enabling ultra-conservative regimes that were not subject to democratic correction by their people. The result was the manufacture and export of a certain peculiar species of hothouse Islam (the ultra-conservative branch of the Arabian Wahhabi school) to places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia.

    If, 20 years ago, you had told anyone that “Islam” would be America’s enemy in our time, you would have been run out of town on a rail.

  3. randalljones says:

    The media is contributing to the problem. Many ask where are the moderate Muslims. but these same people will not interview or report on the many moderate Muslims. It’s as if though they want to perpetuate the mistrust and misunderstandings between Muslims and non-Muslims.

    The link I put up in my previous comment is not working because of the parenthesis at the end. If anyone wants to read about how the use paid for violent and extremists textbooks for Afghan children, the correct link is

  4. donovanschaefer says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more on this, Mr. Jones.

    For what it’s worth, I think the problem is the conflict bias of the corporate media. People are going to change the channel if CNN shows peaceful Muslims out on the streets talking about what their religion means to them. So the only Muslims most Americans see are the fringe lunatics who want to blow things up, and this produces a lopsided view of the day to day reality for the vast majority of mainstream Muslims. Terrorism sells and peaceful dialogue is not news.

    If you want to talk about the willful perpetuation of mistrust and misunderstanding, as you aptly put it, let’s talk about Newt Gingrich. Let’s talk about Fox News. Let’s talk about Pamela Geller.

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