The Shirley Sherrod debacle brings America face-to-face with race and denial—again

By Askia Muhammad and Eric Ture Muhammad -Final Call Staff
Updated Jul 28, 2010 – 10:58:56 PM

WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) – It may be the most shameful incident in the modern history of the NAACP, and yet another failure on the part of President Barack Obama and his administration to understand the depths of racism in this country, and to lead the country to correctly deal with it.

NEWS ANALYSIS

The public pillorying of Shirley Sherrod, a Black USDA official fired for racial misdeeds she never committed, can also be seen as part of an onslaught of right wing propaganda and efforts to counteract any charges of White racism with charges of Black racial animus. Then there is a constant effort to calm White fear on one hand, hoping to avoid election year backlashes, as the other side seeks to inflame White fears to energize segments of White voters. Key to the right wing mobilization is apparently demonizing the president and Black civil rights organizations—and keeping both running away from race in the name of unbiased action.

The president was briefed July 19 about a March two and a half minute video clip purportedly showing Mrs. Sherrod, then director of Georgia State Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, telling a story during a local NAACP banquet about how she hesitated to do all she could to help a poor farmer 24 years ago because he was White and acting superior to her. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack demanded and received her resignation, declaring there is a “zero tolerance policy” for discrimination at USDA.

In a hasty response, the oldest and largest civil rights group in the nation— the Black community’s “Good Shepherd” as it were—sternly rebuked Mrs. Sherrod, one of its own “sheep,” in an obvious attempt to appease the “wolf,” conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart who posted the deceptively edited video on the Internet.

Last year, Mr. Breitbart, a former editor at the Drudge Report, played a key role in the distribution of doctored videos that appeared to show ACORN employees giving advice to a pimp and a prostitute. Mr. Breitbart said he posted the Sherrod video in an effort to get back at the NAACP for passing a resolution at its recently concluded convention, calling on the Tea Party movement to repudiate racism in its ranks.

Within hours after learning of Mrs. Sherrod’s forced resignation, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous supported Sec. Vilsack’s actions and chastised Mrs. Sherrod.

“We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers,” Mr. Jealous said in the group’s initial statement. “Her actions were shameful.

“While she went on to explain in the story that she ultimately realized her mistake, as well as the common predicament of working people of all races, she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done to this man.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

“No way in the world. No way. No way. I don’t even want to talk about it,” Roger Spooner, the elderly White farmer at the center of the story told CNN July 20. “It don’t make sense. She was just so nice to us as—she didn’t—there wasn’t no—there wasn’t no racism attitude at all in it. Heck no. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“I never was treated no better, no nicer, and looked after than Shirley,” Mr. Spooner continued. “She done—she done a magnificent job. I don’t have words—I don’t have words to explain it,” he said. Mrs. Sherrod, he said, helped save his near 500-acre farm.

For the next 48 hours the White House, the Agriculture Secretary and the NAACP were in full retreat, personally and publicly apologizing to Mrs. Sherrod— who had worked for a non-profit group dedicated to stemming the catastrophic loss of Black farmland in the 1980s when she met Mr. Spooner. Her father was shot in the back and murdered by a White farmer when she was 17.

The NAACP, “after a careful investigation” and the day after its initial statement, said: “We have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed White farmers because of racial bias,” the new statement said.

“Having reviewed the full tape, spoken to Ms. Sherrod, and most importantly heard the testimony of the White farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans,” Mr. Jealous said.

President Obama and Sec. Vilsack both telephoned Mrs. Sherrod to apologize. Mr. Vilsack offered her a new, unspecified job at USDA.

Mr. Breitbart refused to apologize, sticking by what he called his attempt to expose racism inside the NAACP. Some say it exposed the Obama administration’s constant fear of a racial bogeyman.

“There are definitely a lot of people who surround (President Obama) that have these backwards views on what a president should do on race. I have dealt with many presidents and as far as Democratic presidents go, they have become less accessible. One of the real problems is that he (President Obama) himself does not make himself accessible,” said Barbara Arnwine, of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“He does a lot of good ceremonial meetings with African-Americans where he’ll come in for a signing ceremony or reception, but he doesn’t do policy meetings. I have been over to the White House several times and I have never seen him other than on the ceremonial set. That is unusual. Most presidents will make themselves available for some policy discussion. The fact that I have seen him in none is puzzling. All of the information he gets is filtered. He gets filtered information from his staff and he’s not getting information directly from people.”

“This administration has to stop acting like they are afraid of the all-Black shadow. They have to become more affirmative proactively when dealing with issues that involve race,” said Ms. Arnwine.

“Why they reacted so badly in this situation, is because of their overall inability and lack of competence on handling racial discrimination acts and civil rights matters in general. If they had a better open policy; one of not bunkering and fear of our race, they would not have been off kilter so bad. They did not act professionally by just not checking facts. They should have looked at the source. Why would you trust this?”

“The real travesty of this case was perpetrated by Andrew Briebart, a filmographer that represents biggovernment.com who is also associated with taking down ACORN and fomenting racial animosity toward President Obama. It was very clear that his efforts were triggered by the NAACP’s criticism of racism within the Tea Party Movement and the unwillingness of the Tea Party to address it,” said Wade Henderson, a longtime civil rights leader.

“Breibart wanted to establish a moral equivalency, if you will, between the Tea Party and the NAACP. In essence, he would stop at nothing to do it, including, manipulating a film of Shirley Sherrod giving a speech at the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet and making her appear that she condoned and practiced racial bigotry. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Mr. Henderson, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Post-controversy: Sherrod called ‘polarizing figure’

A week after the Sherrod story made headlines—beginning with an Internet post from Mr. Breitbart, which was picked up and reported by Fox News online and cable, and by talk show host Bill O’Reilly, who called for her firing and later apologized, and other media outlets—right wing bloggers and talking heads were still defending the man who started the fiasco.

Some painted Mr. Breitbart as a victim and others jammed the president and NAACP for making hasty misjudgments. If the NAACP had done “due diligence,” since Mrs. Sherrod spoke at an NAACP function and the NAACP had the full tape, they said, perhaps the controversy might have been avoided.

Mr. O’Reilly, in a July 26 column, apologized for not having all the facts in initially demanding Mrs. Sherrod be fired from USDA. But he wasn’t willing to let things go and called Mrs. Sherrod “a polarizing figure.”

“Shirley Sherrod is a long-time liberal activist who peppered her NAACP speech with racial references such as this: ‘I figured I’d take (the farmer) to one of them (White lawyer)—that his own kind would take care of him. His own kind?” wrote Mr. O’Reilly on www.billoreilly.com.

“Now, we all make mistakes, and that just might be a harmless comment. But if a White federal official referred to an African-American by using the term ‘his own kind,’ you know what would happen.

“Then Ms. Sherrod went on to tell the NAACP audience this: ‘I haven’t seen such a mean-spirited people as I’ve seen lately over this issue of health care. Some of the racism that we thought was buried, didn’t it surface? Now we endured eight years of the Bushes, and we didn’t do the stuff these Republicans are doing because you have a Black president.’

“The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from endorsing political parties while on the job. Ms. Sherrod was invited to speak at the NAACP meeting because she was in the administration. So you make the call.

“There are two main points here: First, Shirley Sherrod was not initially treated fairly by me, some other journalists, the NAACP and the Obama administration. She deserved better.

“And, secondly, Ms. Sherrod may not be a great fit for the USDA. She is obviously a very political person with a strong point of view. Public servants are supposed to look out for all the folks; it is tough for polarizing people to do that.”

A woman over $1 billion budget?

Mrs. Sherrod—whose calm, dignified demeanor has been compared favorably to Mrs. Rosa Parks, who was arrested and bravely faced racial hostility for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955—declined to say whether or not she would return to work for USDA, which Black farmers have labeled the “most racist agency” in the federal government.

“Shirley Sherrod in her remarkable career has been one of the most active practitioners in assisting untold numbers of Black and White farmers to access the credit, conservation and other programs at USDA,” said Ralph Paige, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund.

“We find it ironic that in the 100 years of USDA’s history of discrimination, not a single White person has been dismissed for discrimination, however, a Black women who is doing her job well is falsely accused of discrimination in an altered video and you decide that she can no longer do a credible and nondiscriminatory job of dispensing USDA rural development programs and must resign,” he said.

According to USDA, Mrs. Sherrod’s former agency administers and manages over 40 housing, business, and community infrastructure and facility programs as laid out by Congress through a network of 6,100 employees located in 500 national, state and local offices. These programs are designed to improve the economic stability of rural communities, businesses, residents, farmers and ranchers and improve the quality of life in rural America. The Georgia agency has an existing portfolio of over $114 billion in loans and loan guarantees. She was appointed by the Obama administration in July 2009.

“This woman controlled a billion dollars in funds,” Ms. Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law told The Final Call. “Very few African Americans anywhere control $1 billion in funding.

To take away her job when she had that kind of power is a significant loss for all of those poor farmers who relied upon her for that support. I am curious as to why she is not being offered that job back. The job that they are talking about her taking—the outreach job—I don’t see the money, nor the money power she had behind her before,” she said.

“One thing we do know is that on the part of the Agriculture Department, as soon as they found that this was a lie, that it was doctored; that she did not do anything, she should never have been forced to resign or fired. You reinstate her to her position, period,” commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson told The Final Call. “To offer her a new job was an insult. What was wrong with the job she was doing before? Right away this sends a signal that they are not dealing genuinely and sincerely with the issues with race.”

For 15 years before she went to work helping Black farmers save their land, Mrs. Sherrod and her husband, the Rev. Charles Sherrod—a veteran civil rights campaigner who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Non- Violent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s—operated New Communities, a 6,000-acre farming cooperative, which was the largest Black co-op in the nation.

That community was crushed after it lost a battle over loans with the USDA and lost land. The co-op later won a $13 million settlement in that case. Mr. and Mrs. Sherrod were personally awarded $300,000 for their pain and suffering.

“Talk to almost any family member of a Black farmer or check out the C.R.A.T. Report (February 1997) published by the USDA resulting from the ‘Listening Sessions’ of 1996 and see the government’s documentation of how USDA employees, on the local and federal level discriminated against Black farmers, in particular,” Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association said in a statement.

“And nothing was ever done to penalize the all White officials bent on destroying a society of Black farmers across the nation: not one firing, not one charge brought, and not one pension lost,” the statement said.

“The real injustice clearly was done to a courageous civil rights hero,” added Ms. Arnwine. “This is a woman who the USDA knew, she sued them. They knew who she was. And to summarily dismiss her without any due process was just an actual slap, not only to her and the entire civil rights community.

“The next big injustice: I have been constantly speaking to the administration about their need to address racial justice matters in a clear and comprehensive manner. I think that unfortunately they continue to be too skittish, too unfocused and too resistant to addressing racial inequalities with any priority.”

“The USDA has huge problems. When you look at Vilsack’s inner circle you can’t find one Black person. There are none in his inner circle. If you look at what they’ve done on civil rights matters they haven’t done a lot. You look at their policies on farming and small farmers, there is a lot there where she could be a powerful policy voice and she should have a substantial budget where she is able to redress problems. She doesn’t want to be just a mouthpiece,” said Ms. Arnwine.

Ironically, as this episode unfolded on the national media stage, senators quietly stripped more than $1 billion intended to compensate tens of thousands of Black farmers for Pigford v. Glickman a decades old class action suit which Black farmers won, from the emergency Supplemental Act of 2010 before they approved it and sent it back to the House of Representatives for reconciliation on July 22.

Not all grassroots activists were confused or “snookered.”

“There’s just so much outrage about what has occurred. It’s so incredibly outrageous that Mrs. Sherrod was faced with the false charge of so-called anti- White racism and essentially fired as a federal worker for political reasons,” Sarah Sloan, an organizer with the International ANSWER Coalition told The Final Call after a noisy protest rally by several groups including CODE PINK and the D.C. Statehood Green Party, supporting Mrs. Sherrod at the USDA offices July 21.

“This is another example of the administration bowing to right-wing political forces. It was a clear manipulation of what Mrs. Sherrod actually said. We demanded that the administration immediately stop capitulating to rightwing, racist forces,” Ms. Sloan said. “We absolutely will take to the street against every instance of every racist outrage and act of discrimination that we see.”

Many observers agree that President Obama has been mostly silent on racial issues, and has a poor record of supporting Black appointees—like so-called “Green Jobs Czar” Van Jones, who was labeled a “Black radical” and a “conspiracy theorist” by conservative opponents and was forced to resign.

So, instead of celebrating two major legislative victories that week—a $33 billion extension of unemployment benefits after a Republican filibuster was broken, and a major overhaul of financial regulations governing banks and investment firms—the Sherrod incident forced the Obama administration to try to defend the indefensible: its poor record on race.

Ms. Arnwine doubts the president “hears the urgency. We went to the meeting with all of his top officials in December about unemployment amongst Blacks. … They got him in this bubble; he is too insulated and he needs to personally become more involved with policy. I have been to a lot of big meetings and I am surprised that he is not there. The unlearned lesson is that in order to be the Black president for all of the people you have to understand that all of the people includes Black people. That is the lesson they have not learned.”

“Issues of race continue to be the enduring and a problematic core problem of American democracy. Racial bias, racial discrimination, issues of race continue to be at the very heart of American democracy in the 21st century. Particularly when you put issues of race, poverty, and structure inequality on the table. When you put these three things together, continue to make it difficult to resolve America’s oldest dilemma. I think the country has been historically reluctant to discuss these issues openly,” said Mr. Henderson.

(Eric Ture Muhammad reported from Atlanta.)

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