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The Color of Money

In Shirley Sherrod’s speech, the message was clear: It’s time to shrink the income gap

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post / July 25, 2010

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Instead of focusing on the politics behind the firing and subsequent redemption of Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod, we should consider what she was trying to tell us when she addressed the NAACP.

Sherrod became the latest hot-topic story after a conservative blogger posted a video that was edited to make it appear she went out of her way to not offer help to a white farmer when she worked for the Federation of Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund decades ago. Sherrod was summarily asked to resign and then, in a New York minute, was vindicated when the full video of her speech revealed she had been instrumental in saving the man’s farm.

Given her work and experience, we need to hear Sherrod out.

There is a disturbing and widening gulf between rich and poor in America. And it would be even wider except for the fact that so many middle-income families have borrowed their way to a comfortable lifestyle. They are just a paycheck, a divorce, or a health crisis away from financial ruin.

Sherrod said that while working with the white farmer, she realized that the social war we’ve been having isn’t about race but economic inequity.

“Y’all, it’s about poor versus those who have,’’ Sherrod said in her speech. “It’s really about those who have versus those who don’t, you know. And they could be black; and they could be white; they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people — those who don’t have access the way others have.’’

Over the last several decades, more and more Americans have come to this realization.

A 2007 report by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy found that the top 20 private-equity and hedge fund managers made more in 10 minutes than average-paid US workers earned in a year. Top executives at hedge funds averaged $12.6 million a week, or $210,700 an hour based on a 60-hour week, compared with the $29,500 the average worker made in 2006, according to researchers.

“There is no difference between us,’’ Sherrod said. “The only difference is that the folks with money want to stay in power and whether it’s health care or whatever it is, they’ll do what they need to do to keep that power, you know.’’

As President Obama noted in his inaugural address: “The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.’’

So when will we stop the verbal warfare, race-baiting, and character assassinations, and concentrate on finding the right mix of public policy and personal responsibility to close the income gap?

Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post. She can be reached at singletarym@washpost.com.

SOURCE: Bloomberg News