Sista Shirley Sherrod, Hypocrisy and Political Expediency
By: Charlie Cobb Jr.
July 21, 2010
A friend takes a look at the real Shirley Sherrod.
(Also see Rachel Maddow video below)
Let me say--putting all my cards on the table so to speak--that the Sherrods are my friends. Charles Sherrod, the husband of the now controversial, fired USDA official Shirley Sherrod, was one of the founders and leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). We worked together.
So what are we looking at? Well, the whole video shows Shirley Sherrod using an anecdotal story to describe a prejudicial attitude she had 24 years ago about her reservations with helping white farmers given the plight of black farmers; she used it as an illustration of racial reconciliation. It was important, she said, to get beyond race when it came to helping farmers in need.
Here's the conclusion Sherrod comes to in her remarks on this matter: ''Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't. And they could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic--it made me realize that I needed to help poor people.''
In truth, nobody black--at least of a certain age--completely escapes the inclination to mentally mutter: How come the white people get most of the help? That Sherrod was willing to use her own attitude from a quarter century ago seems like a positive thing; especially with a U.S. government department that has been as notoriously racist and discriminatory as the USDA.
I know Charles Sherrod better than Shirley Sherrod. Back in the day when he was SNCC project director for southwest Georgia, he insisted on a racially integrated organizing team. Those of us stationed in Mississippi were reluctant, saying, that our assignment was dangerous enough without adding to the danger in this way. But Charlie insisted that we had to force the issue. This history adds to the strangeness of the kind of controversy swirling around Shirley Sherrod.
As a reporter, I know how easy it is to take an excerpt and project it in such a way as to distort the position of someone, especially if you have a political agenda.
After watching the entire video of Sherrod's remarks, NAACP president and chief operating officer Ben Jealous has now retracted his organization's initial renouncement of Shirley Sherrod, declaring that the NAACP had been ''snookered.'' Jealous even suggested that the controversy was a deliberate deception by the conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, who ''broke'' this story.
At least the NAACP's Jealous took the time to look at the entire video. Apparently neither the White House nor the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack bothered to do so once they felt the flames of right-wing criticism. But then again, blacks traditionally have been expendable at this level of politics.
Charles Cobb Jr. is senior analyst for All Africa. His latest book is On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail.----------------------------
Shirley Sherrod and the Politics of Overreaction
By: Terence Samuel
July 20, 2010
I feel bad for Shirley Sherrod. Not just because she lost her job. Not just because it may be that she did not do what she is accused of doing. Not because her only crime may be the very postmodern transgression of being on video and out of context. (Hear her remarks in context here.) I feel bad for Shirley Sherrod because she is only the latest example of how difficult it is for us to get beyond our own racial race. I feel bad for her because I feel bad for all of us. We're stuck. Her firing and the overreaction from the White House, the USDA and the NAACP are just more depressing plot points in the sad story of race in America.
The irony here is so rich that it is almost farcical. After almost 150 years of the USDA being a bastion of racist and discriminatory practices that hurt hundred of thousands of black people, a black USDA employee is accused of not helping a white farmer because he was white, and gets fired. It's a small thing, but that's what racism is: small, stupid and always painful. It appears that Sherrod told this story on herself, but she is bigger and smarter than that and was actually making the opposite point.
Sherrod is not just a victim of current partisan circumstances; she is also a victim of our long, tangled and painful history of race. Her "confession" that she did not apply "the full force of what I could do" to help a white farmer save his farm is exactly the kind of thing that had been happening to black farmers who dealt with the USDA since President Abraham Lincoln established the "people department" in 1862. Only that is not what Sherrod did. For generations, white employees of the USDA, particularly in the South, used the full force of what they could do to make sure that black people were shut out of loan, grant and housing programs that should have been open to everyone.
The class-action suit that tried to redress this harm, famously known as Pigford, was filed in 1997 and settled in 1999. Pigford has achieved iconic civil rights status for the light it cast on the historical wrongs committed by the department. U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman, who issued the ruling in the case, looked squarely at the history: "Today there are fewer than 18,000 African-American farms in the United States, and African-American farmers now own less then 3 million acres of land," he wrote. "The United States Department of Agriculture and the county commissioners to whom it has delegated so much power bear much of the responsibility for this dramatic decline."
The suit alleged that not only had the Agriculture Department discriminated against black farmers, but when they complained about that discrimination, the USDA did not investigate or respond to those charges of bias. One of the conditions of the settlement was that the federal government would pay $50,000 to each farmer who sought USDA help and did not get it.
But when the Obama administration took office, the farmer found a champion in former Iowa governor and new Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who announced that fixing the civil right enforcement problems and the department's poor reputation were among his top priorities.
Vilsack concluded that the eight years of the Bush administration that followed Pigford only made a bad problem worse. More than 14,000 civil rights claims were filed against the USDA during the Bush administration, but almost none got any attention.
Vilsack ordered a review. "We just need to know," he told me in the spring of 2009. "One of two things happened: Either we don't let people know when they have a legitimate claim or we were not reviewing them properly."
The sensitivity and focus attached to this case is such that in February of this year, Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder announced a settlement of $1.25 billion to pay more Pigford claims, and the administration budgeted $1.15 billion in a 2010 supplemental budget request for those settlement costs.
This was not the time for Sherrod to say that she did not do what she could to help a farmer because of his race. This is the kind of this that will get you fired at USDA. In a statement released by the USDA Tuesday, Vilsack said he had accepted Sherrod's resignation, and took the time to repeat that the department would not tolerate discrimination.
The irony, of course, is that Shirley Sherrod may be guilty of no such thing. Just to recap:
Sherrod's story about the white farmer took place more than two decades before she worked for USDA, and the entire point of the story was that race is not an issue. The story was about how she and the family became friends and how she eventually helped them save their farm.
In the wake of her resignation, the farmer's wife, Eloise Spooner, told CNN that Sherrod went all out to help them. "She's the one I can credit with helping us saving our farm," Spooner said, but 26 years later, conservative bloggers could rewrite that story to great effect.
Soon after Obama took office, Vilsack noted that some of the lingering problems had to do with USDA'S troubled history: "I think it is a reflection of the past and decisions that were made long ago, and we are still dealing with the consequences," he said.
Add Shirley Sherrod to the list of consequences. We're stuck in consequences.
Terence Samuel is The Root's editor-at-large. His first book, The Upper House: A Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the U.S. Senate, was released in May by Palgrave Macmillan. Follow him on Twitter.
Rachel Maddow Cuts to The Chase on Racist Smear of Sista Sherrod
Shirley Sherrod To Sue Andrew Breitbart
Sherrod was forced to resign last week as director of rural development in Georgia after Andrew Breitbart posted the edited video online. In the full video, Sherrod, who is black, spoke to a local NAACP group about racial reconciliation and overcoming her initial reluctance to help a white farmer.
Speaking Thursday at the National Association of Black Journalists convention, Sherrod said she would definitely sue over the video that took her remarks out of context. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has since offered Sherrod a new job in the department. She has not decided whether to accept.
Sherrod said she had not received an apology from Breitbart and no longer wanted one. "He had to know that he was targeting me," she said.
Breitbart did not immediately respond to a call or e-mails seeking comment. He has said he posted the portion of the speech where she expresses reservations about helping the white farmer to prove that racism exists in the NAACP, which had just demanded that the tea party movement renounce any bigoted elements.
Some members of the NAACP audience responded approvingly when Sherrod described her reluctance to help the farmer.
The farmer came forward after Sherrod resigned, saying she ended up helping save his farm.
Vilsack and President Barack Obama later called Sherrod to apologize for her hasty ouster.
Obama said Thursday that Sherrod "deserves better than what happened last week."
Addressing the National Urban League, he said the full story Sherrod was trying to tell "is exactly the kind of story we need to hear in America."
Obama has acknowledged that people in his administration overreacted without having full information, and says part of the blame lies with a media culture that seeks conflict but not all the facts.
At the journalists convention, Sherrod was asked what could be done to ensure accurate coverage as conservatives like Breitbart attack the NAACP and other liberal groups.
Sherrod, 62, responded that members of her generation who were in the civil rights movement "tried too much to shield that hurt and pain from younger people. We have to do a better job of helping those individuals who get these positions, in the media, in educational institutions, in the presidency, we have to make sure they understand the history so they can do a better job."
She said Obama is one of those who need a history lesson.
"That's why I invited him to southwest Georgia. I need to take him around and show him some of that history," Sherrod said.
Sherrod said the description of the new job she has been offered in the office of advocacy and outreach was a "draft," and she questioned whether any money had been budgeted for its programs.
"I have many, many questions before I can make a decision," she said.
Despite her experience, Sherrod said she believes the country can heal its racial divisions – if people are willing to confront the issue.
"Young African-Americans, young whites, too, we've done such a job of trying to be mainstream that we push things under the rug that we need to talk about. And then we get to situations like this," she said.
"I truly believe that we can come together in this country. But you don't (come together) by not talking to each other. You don't get there by pushing things under the rug."
Sherrod said her faulty firing should not be blamed on all media.
Before the full video was released, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said Sherrod should be fired, and others called her speech racist. O'Reilly later apologized.
"They had a chance to get the facts out, and they weren't interested," Sherrod said.
She said she declined to give Fox an interview because she believed they were not interested in pursuing the truth. "They would have twisted it," she said.
A Fox News spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at jwashington(at)ap.org.