The Spin Cycle: Shirley Sherrod Shifts the Paradigm

Welcome back to The Spin Cycle, Lilith’s online forum for media analysis.

Shirley Sherrod

Racism, sexism, and the real-life political power of modern media played out with a vengeance this week in the total horror-show of Shirley Sherrod’s firing from her position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Over twenty years ago, this woman of color publicly struggled to come to terms with the personal implications of the systemic racism that defined her childhood and later civil rights work.

Then, this week, Fox News repeatedly aired a decontextualized and heavily edited clip, purporting to prove Sherrod’s anti-white racism, based on a lecture she had given at the NAACP.  Sherrod was then summarily hung out to dry by the conservative media machine, the federal government, and the NAACP.

Later retractions aside, these initial reactions mark a gut-wrenching willingness to willfully ignore the past and present role of race and racism, and gender and sexism, in American society.

Here’s a parallel to learn from: In the early 1920s in the Soviet Union, Jews for the first time entered into the upper echelons of government in Russia. It was a huge challenge to balance the very real, chronic and endemic societal antisemitism with the public visibility of a highly enfranchised elite group of Jews in government. This shift threw off what, until then, was often seen as a static ethnic hierarchy—with Jews hovering near the bottom. This shake-up forced a reassessment of what constitutes political power.

And thus, when, in America, a person of color, or a woman, or a woman of color, functions as a representative of The Establishment, people get freaked out. It throws off a balance that is, if not desirable, at least… familiar. We then have to re-assess our understanding of the distribution of political power.

As Jews learned in the 1920s, and have learned time and again, power is a mixed-up thing. It’s not statically distributed—it shifts and mutates by the second. To my mind, one of the political media’s most important roles is to disseminate information so that individuals can make informed decisions, to speak truth to (or at least about) the ever-shifting dynamics of institutionalized power. But the density and speed of this media-driven mess shows that, often, these institutions are just leading each other by the nose, around and around in twisting circles, driven by old prejudice in new forms.

-Sonia Isard