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Racism, Shirley Sherrod and the Obama White House

By Clarence Lusane

ZSpace - The Spirit of Resistance Lives 
ZCommunications.org

Saturday, July 31, 2010

http://www.zcommunications.org/racism-shirley-sherrod-and-the-obama-white-house-by-clarence-lusane

[Note: This article is an excerpt from The Black History of
the White House forthcoming in the Open Media Series by City
Lights Books, www.citylights.com ]

The Shirley Sherrod controversy, like the Van Jones incident
last summer, demonstrates the power of the right-wing media
to rock the Obama White House when it comes to racial
matters. On July 19, 2010, conservative blogger Andrew
Breitbart, who has a long history of producing carefully
doctored videos, posted a video clip on his Website,
Biggovernment.org. That clip reportedly showed a black U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA) employee stating that she
had discriminated against a white farmer because he was
white and arrogant. The employee, Shirley Sherrod, says in
the two-and-a-half minute clip, that she did not give "the
full force of what I could do" to help a white farmer who
came to her for assistance. Her remarks were given at an
event held by the NAACP in Douglas, Georgia. On Monday
morning, July 19, the story was picked up by Fox News and
began to rapidly spread to other news organizations and on
the Internet.

Racial tensions were in the air because the previous week
had witnessed a public scuffle between the NAACP and the tea
party movement. On July 14, 2010, the NAACP passed a
resolution at its annual convention that called for tea
party leaders to denounce the racist behavior that had
manifested at some of its events. The response of some tea
party leaders and activists was to incorrectly accuse the
NAACP of calling the entire tea party movement racist. The
controversy was furthered intensified when one tea party
leader, Mark Williams of the Tea Party Express, wrote a
supposedly satirical letter from a black individual to
President Lincoln using racist imagery and language. He
wrote, "We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we
don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means
having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take
consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too
much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it
stop." He and the Tea Party Express were subsequently booted
out of the 85 member and affiliated National Tea Party
Federation. Tea party leaders from Sarah Palin to Michelle
Bachman defended the virtually all-white movement against
the NAACP mostly by not addressing the issue that had been
raised but by accusing the NAACP of being racial hustlers or
worse.

When the Sherrod story first broke, officials at the USDA
panicked believing that the administration was about to be
attacked for sanctioning reverse racism. Within hours,
Sherrod came under intense pressure from high officials in
the department including Secretary of Agriculture Tom
Vilsack to resign without delay.  At one point,
Undersecretary Cheryl Cook caught up with Sherrod as she was
driving. Sherrod stated that while she was attempting to
explain her side of the story, she was asked to pull to the
side of the road and immediately submit her resignation via
text because the issue was "going to be on Glenn Beck" that
evening. Sherrod did resign but did not go down passively.
Meanwhile, the NAACP issued a statement denouncing Sherrod
and applauding her resignation. It wrote, "We concur with US
Agriculture Secretary Vilsack in accepting the resignation
of Shirley Sherrod for her remarks at a local NAACP Freedom
Fund banquet. Racism is about the abuse of power. Sherrod
had it in her position at USDA. According to her remarks,
she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because
of his race. We are appalled by her actions, just as we are
with abuses of power against farmers of color and female
farmers."

Suspicious of the source, some news organizations, in
particular MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution, and CNN raised questions about the
legitimacy of the tape and tried to locate Sherrod to
interview her. As it turns out, by Tuesday morning, the clip
was exposed to be entirely misleading and in fact Sherrod
was using the story to tell how she overcame whatever
prejudicial feelings she had realizing that people of all
races needed help. In fact, the incident had occurred
twenty-four years earlier when she worked for a local non-
profit and not while she was working as an employee of the
U.S. government. In the full version of the speech, she
states, "God helped me to see that it's not just about black
people - it's about poor people."  In speaking about her
work helping the farmer in question, she stated, "Well,
working with him made me see that it's really about those
who have versus those who don't, you know. And they could be
black; they could be white; they could be Hispanic."  She
ended up playing a decisive role in helping the farmer,
Roger Spooner, save his farm, a fact that he and his wife,
Eloise, testified to in subsequent media interviews. Calls
and emails began to flood into the White House and
Agriculture Department demanding Sherrod reinstatement.

The cruel irony of the situation, in which a black USDA
employee is accused of racism against a white farmer and is
forced to resign, was that in the long history of struggle
around black land ownership and fairness for black farmers,
the USDA had never fired a single white employee for
virulent, overt, and persistent racism against blacks and
other people of color. That the USDA has a dishonorable
record of racial discrimination is indisputable. In its long
history of documented racism the USDA has denied loans to
black and minority farmers, gave loans that were too late in
the farming cycle, conducted excessive supervisions of loans
that white farmers did not have to endure, ignored black
farmers' claims of discrimination, disrespected individuals,
and had a mostly whites-only hiring policy.  In 1983,
President Reagan eliminated the USDA Office of Civil Rights
that would not be re-opened until 1996, but even then did
little to address the concerns of farmers of color.

More generally, the racism that denied assistance to black
farmers continually for more than 100 years has been a
central factor in shaping the economic fortune of millions
of African Americans resonating in the disproportionate
levels of poverty that exist in the black community today.
On January 16, 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued
Field Order 15 that promised 40 acres off the South Carolina
Sea Islands and plantations from Charleston, South Carolina
to Jacksonville, South Carolina, and a federal mule to those
who had left slavery and were working with the Union army.
This pledge was given further legal support when on March 3,
1865 Lincoln signed the Freedmen's Bureau Act, which
assigned "not more than 40 acres" to the freed to rent with
an option to purchase after three years. Lincoln also had
created the USDA in 1862 referring to it as the "people's
department." Indeed, more than 40,000 African Americans had
settled on confiscated land by June 1865.  However, after
Lincoln's April 14th assassination, President Andrew Johnson
rescinded the order in his effort to reintegrate southern
rebels back into the nation. At the expense of African
Americans, Johnson issued an amnesty order that included
property restoration and blacks were subsequently forced off
these lands. Despite the broken promise of the U.S.
government, by 1900, African Americans owned 15 million
acres of land mostly in the South. By 1910, this would grow
to 16 million with a peak of 925,000 black farmers a decade
later. This would represent a high point as discrimination
and racism including by the USDA would reduce significantly
this ownership over the next 100 years. By 2000, according
to a statement made by Judge Paul Freidman in the successful
lawsuit against the USDA by black farmers, there were only
about 18,000 black farmers left on less than three million
acres.

A number of black farm organizations would rise over the
years to fight back against the unjust and racist policies
of local, state, and federal officials. This would include
the Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union,
Black Land Fund, Black Farmers Alliance, Black Farmers and
Agriculturalists Association (BFAA), and Federation of
Southern Cooperatives (FSC) with whom Sherrod had once
worked as a staff member. In 1997, black farmers filed a
lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, against the USDA for
discrimination. In 1999, the black farmers won over $2.3
billion in what has been called "the largest civil rights
settlement in history."   However, there were many black
farmers who were left out of the suit because it only
covered those who had been discriminated against between
1981 and 1996. And some estimate that close to 90 percent of
even those farmers were denied when they applied for
restitution. That figure is probably accurate given that the
Bush administration spent more than 56,000 office hours and
$12 million fighting the claims made by black farmers.
Duped Pigford II, first members of Congress and then the
Obama administration won an agreement that included an
additional payout to more than 65,000 black farmers who were
excluded from the original suit.

Indeed, Vilsack himself stated soon after coming to office
that "civil rights is one of my top priorities" and "[I]
intend to take definitive action to improve USDA's record on
civil rights." Obama proposed $1.25 billion in his 2010
budget to pay what is owed to the black farmers, a proposal
that Republicans in Congress have repeatedly blocked as of
August 2010.

It is also notable that Sherrod herself has been a critical
actor in this history. As a child growing up in Georgia, she
lived through the experience of having her father, Hoise
Miller, murdered - shot in the back no less - by a white
neighbor who suffered no punishment for his crime. Rather
than leave the South, however, she decided to stay and try
to bring about much needed social and racial justice. Her
activism was enhanced when she married Charles Sherrod, a
founder and leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC) in Albany, Georgia. They both remained
activists on issues of fairness and anti-poverty.  She
worked for a number of organizations and movements earning a
stellar reputation as a strong, reliable, articulate, and
committed leader of the region's poor, traits that were
revealed in her media interviews as the controversy
unfolded.

Given this history and the discredited record of Breitbart,
both the administration and the NAACP should have acted more
cautiously before going after Sherrod. Vilsack and USDA
officials clearly violated her right to due process let
along simply giving her the benefit of the doubt as opposed
to that of her accusers. At a minimum, they owed her the
responsibility to do an investigation prior to initiating
such strong action against her. So did the NAACP. The
incident in question happened at the meeting of one of their
chapters giving it immediate access to witnesses of the
speech as well as videos of the event. In fact, once the
leadership did look at the entire speech, it immediately
issued an apology stating that it had been "snookered" by
Breitbart, and called for her reinstatement.

Strong letters of support were sent from the FSC and BFAA.
FSC Executive Director Ralph Paige in a blistering letter
charged the USDA with not reviewing the facts before it
acted and, in noting Sherrod's "remarkable career," argued
that she deserved "to be honored" rather than persecuted.
BFAA President Gary Grant also called Sherrod "honorable and
hard working" Vilsack's statement that the USDA does not
tolerate racism "a complete lie." Sherrod would later state,
"It hurts me that they didn't even try to attempt to see
what is happening here, they didn't care."

Meanwhile, on Tuesday July 21, 2010 USDA officials
vacillated even as the evidence mounted that Sherrod had
been framed. Vilsack stated that regardless of the context,
her comments - or more honestly the right-wing hysteria
about them - "compromises the director's ability to do her
job."  In other words, conservative accusations of reverse
racism whether true or not were enough to have someone
dismissed from the employment in the Obama administration.
However, Sherrod's powerful interviews in the media, letters
and emails from around the nation, and even a retreat by
Breitbart himself, disingenuously claiming that he did not
know the clip was incomplete, forced the administration to
change its position. On Wednesday, both White House Press
Secretary Robert Gibbs and Vilsack issued apologies. Gibbs
stated, "On behalf of our administration, I offer an
apology." Vilsace remarked, "This is a good woman. She's
been put through hell. She was put through hell and I could
have done and should have done a better job," and even
offered Sherrod a new position at USDA focused on civil
rights. On July 22,  Obama called Sherrod to apologize as
well. Reportedly, he expressed his regrets about the whole
situation and told her "this misfortune can present an
opportunity for her to continue her hard work on behalf of
those in need, and he hopes that she will do so."

While Vilsack took personal responsibility for what
occurred, Obama and the White House blamed the media
environment for the rapid spread of the story and reactions
of his administration. There is no argument that some in the
media played a harmful role in the controversy, Fox News and
conservative media outlets in particular. But many believe
it was the fear of right wing media that created the milieu
in which there is a knee-jerk reaction to even the slightest
threat of bad news, particularly on the issue of race, which
drives the administration's actions. As some noted, it would
be difficult to believe that the former Bush administration
would have fired a staffer because of an unsubstantiated (or
even substantiated) report that was going to be discussed on
the left-leaning The Keith Olberman Show or Amy Goodman's
Democracy Now!. The incident revealed that the Obama
administration gave undo power and influence to the likes of
Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh to shape their agenda. The
embarrassing fact that the president himself had to express
his regrets to Sherrod made it more likely that those in his
administration who believe any discussion about race should
be taboo will continue to hold sway against those who argue
that pro-active words and actions are needed more than ever.
It is possible, however, that the Sherrod incident
represents a turning point where it is clear to the Obama
White House that it must stand on principle and fight for
racial justice and fairness regardless of the rantings of
its opponents or even the political costs at stake.

[Clarence Lusane is a Professor at American University and
the former editor of the journal Black Political Agenda. He
is author of several books, including a major work, The
Black History of the White House forthcoming this fall in
the Open Media Series by City Lights Books.]

_____________________________________________

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