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 famers’ 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.