Hysteria over Shirley Sherrod last week unfortunately overshadowed a sensible, courageous and long overdue analysis of racial politics by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Webb put to rest the myth of white dominance that has "served as the whipping post for almost every debate about power and status in America." Because of government-sponsored "diversity" policies, he wrote, white workers have become marginalized to serve an overbroad effort to make up for past wrongs.

Webb rightly notes that the old South was a three-tiered society, "with blacks and hard-put whites both dominated by white elites who manipulated racial tensions in order to maintain power." He might have added that white elites used populist rhetoric to keep an entire third of the region's population disenfranchised, in effect also making the Southern economy "backward."

This kind of poverty -- the effect of the Civil War combined with harmful Jim Crow laws -- was hard to reverse. Because government was responsible, only government could reverse itself 50 years later. To remedy the legacy of Jim Crow, Webb argued, government instituted diversity programs that have grown far beyond their original purpose and "now favor anyone who does not happen to be white."

This is progress, of course, and should not be mistaken as moral equivalence. Affirmative action and the pursuit of diversity is not a new form of Jim Crow. But these policies have overshot their mark by adversely affecting another group of people, namely poor whites, who have enough working against them, particularly in this recession. It's bad enough to have the economy weighing you down; it's worse when the government uses you to atone for sins you didn't commit.

That a Democrat would come out with such a statement is remarkable too, given they party's support for these policies. But this Democrat is different. Webb has frequently been accused of "sounding like a Republican" when it comes to racial preferences, but Republicans could only wish that were true. Many Republicans have been tin-eared in this area, a factor that played a big role in Webb's win against incumbent Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who casually and insensitively referred to a Democrat operative with a racial pejorative at a campaign event.

Webb's argument is rooted in a genuine desire to get past the "gotcha" politics of race and the unintended consequences of racial guilt. With luck and good sense, the nation will follow suit.