Few people had heard of Shirley Sherrod before Tuesday when she was caught in the pulverzing mill of race, politics and a quick-fire media and booted from her mid-level job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
What happens to her next will depend on her boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who yesterday apologized and walked back his swift, unfair condemnation of her and, like the NAACP which similarly criticized her, admitted his mistake.
Sherrod’s bout is business as usual in Washington and on the mainland. Here in Hawaii, manipulation of racial issues isn’t a matter of course, except when it is, and election season is the time when maneuvers and twists come into heavy rotation.
Sherrod’s misfortune traces back to 1986, when she was working for a nonprofit group focused on assisting black farmers and was asked by a white man to rescue his farm. As a black woman, she resented having to help someone who had initially treated her with disrespect. But she came to realize that white or black, the difficulties were the same. They were "about the poor versus those who have," she said.
She put her heart into the task. Eventually, she and the man and his wife became friends, and the couple credit her with helping to save their farm.
At an NAACP gathering in March, Sherrod told the story to illustrate the need "to look beyond race," she said. But she became the unwitting medium for a distorted message when a video of her remarks was posted on a conservative activist’s website, deviously edited to leave out the part about how she recognized her mistake.
The website’s goal was to ding the NAACP for approving a resolution calling on the tea party movement to renounce "the racist element and activities" of some of its constituents.
Such a convolution of deception to exploit racial issues would not work too well in a smaller community like Hawaii. That’s not to say race isn’t a big ingredient in political brews. It is stirred in with a more subtle hand, mostly in dashes of local vs. non-local.
At a Hawaii Carpenters Union convention Saturday, former Mayor Mufi Hannemann added a sprinkle of this in seeking the group’s endorsement.
"When I look in the audience, I look like you, you look like me," he said, then went on to detail his ethnicity and racial background, describing his wife as a "katonk," and concluding that "I’ve got it all in my household, baby, I can relate to each and every one of you."
Neil Abercrombie, Hannemann’s rival for the Democratic nomination for governor, doesn’t have the born-and-raised credential so he can only point to long-time residency in the islands. Both these men know neither is a qualification for being governor. They also know that localism can work for or against a candidate, particularly because there is a fresh generation of voters who are more sophisticated and whose ties to party and ethnic blocs have been loosened.
Still, the local angle will cut into campaigns, but its complexity can wound if pushed too deeply.
Cynthia Oi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.