I recently responded to a question posed by the Washington Post‘s “On Leadership” Web series regarding the Shirley Sherrod firing, “How can today’s leaders assess when to move quickly and when to hang back?”
Let’s not be confused. As Shirley Sherrod reflects on the apology expressed and job opportunity offered by Tom Vilsack following the accusations that she was a racist, one could characterize the drama as an example of a bad call—actually a series of bad calls—made when leaders had to make a decision under uncertainty (like an umpire incorrectly calling a base runner safe on a close play in baseball). But that would not explain why we see leaders so frequently make ill-conceived and just plain dumb responses when race emerges.
The real problem is that when it comes to race, leaders all too often suffer from bouts of race reactivity and they play the “zero tolerance” card. The knee-jerk condemnations of Sherrod by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, by the NAACP, and by Vilsack initially reveal how our sensitivity makes any discussion that is racial transform into a discussion about how someone is racist. As we now come to understand what really happened, this situation illustrates that a person can talk about race without being racist. I’ve seen this scenario play out in my research and consulting in all kinds of organizations and social encounters. Our fear and anxiety about having honest and open dialogue on the complexities of race make us play the “zero tolerance” card whenever anyone says something even remotely resembling racial sensitivity. But in fact, we need to have more conversations in which we hold our reactivity in check.
And let me be clear on two points. First, of course some people exploit the knowledge that we are race reactive for political gain. They know leaders are fearful of race and they use that to advantage. That may have indeed been Breitbart’s initial motivation in posting the short video. I don’t agree with Breitbart’s perspectives or his approach, but I’m going to practice what I preach and examine the guy’s behavior and role in this situation before I leap to blame him for race-baiting. He may have been a smart political operative, but he also may have been a guy with a perspective to advocate who was also vulnerable to race reactivity. He may have posted only the short video because that is all he wanted to see and wanted others to see. That tunnel vision is precisely what I am talking about and no single political ideology has a monopoly on it. Remember, the NAACP condemned Sherrod, too.
Second, I don’t like racists and am not all that interested in sitting down for tea with them. But most people I encounter are not racists. They are people who want and need to have conversations about race and they step into those conversations with varying degrees of skill and insight. What was powerful about Sherrod’s foray into race was that she was telling a story of healing and evolution from a place in which racial bias limited her to one in which racial openness led her to do her job exceedingly well. We need to hear more of those kinds of stories, not have them stifled by zero tolerance.
It’s unfortunate that the zero tolerance card has played out in this situation. Usually, it is white men who are victims of this problem: they make mistakes related to race or gender and are punished before they have a chance to learn from them. Here, a black woman has fallen victim to the “card.” Leaders rush to condemn anyone who makes an “identity” mistake, in part, because it makes the leader look virtuous to do so. If I call out the racist person, other people are much less likely to label me as a racist myself. But being intolerant toward people who make mistakes keeps leaders and their constituents from learning the valuable lessons that come from examining the mistakes. The farmer and his wife in this story actually defend, not blame, Ms. Sherrod because she ultimately supported them during their struggle. The power of the story that Ms. Sherrod shared is that any of us can make a mistake and recover—even thrive—after the fact.