The sad tale of Shirley Sherrod exploded Tuesday. In two ways. First, the story of the local African-American U.S. Department of Agriculture official forced to resign after a conservative website posted a video of a speech she gave and accused her of racism was everywhere: on the Internet, on cable networks. Second, it turned out to be wrong. At an NAACP dinner in March, Sherrod, a rural development director for the USDA in Georgia, recalled how she had once been hesitant to assist a white farmer who had taken a condescending manner toward her and had referred him to a white lawyer. BigGovernment.com, the right-wing site that detonated this controversy, claimed that she had "withheld help from a white farmer seeking the [USDA's] help in saving his farm." Not so.
As CNN and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quickly sussed out -- by interviewing Sherrod and the farmer in question and his wife -- Sherrod was speaking about an incident that happened 24 years ago, when she worked for a nonprofit in Georgia that assisted farmers. Sherrod was referring to her own journey in moving beyond depending on skin color to assess interactions -- to realizing that the poor/wealthy divide was more significant than the black/white split. The farmer's wife, Eloise Spooner, has said that Sherrod ended up working fiercely to help her and her husband hold on to their farm.
Sherrod had not denied USDA assistance to a white farmer due to her own anti-white racism. Her story was one of racial reconciliation -- that is, the opposite of what BigGovernment and conservative bloviators (Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and others) said.
The right is always looking for examples of Obama administration reverse racism. Why is that? Can you possibly conceive of a reason why conservatives might suspect this administration is engaging in such a practice and why they would go hog wild when they discover what they assume is undeniable evidence? This is tough to figure out, right?
So this woman -- declared a hero by the people she supposedly discriminated against -- is out of a job. As this to-do was building steam, the Ag Department forced her to quit. And that is the real tragedy. At this point, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and under-secretary Cheryl Cook are the villains in this piece -- though the former announced this morning that he will review the dismissal.
You can't expect right-wing agitators to act honorably. That's not how they make a living. They don't report; they exploit. Their lack of concern for the facts of this case and for this woman's life is not shocking. It is in their nature. (See the fable about the scorpion and the frog.) The louses are the folks who bum-rushed Sherrod to the guillotine. On Monday, as Sherrod was driving across Georgia, she says, she received a series of calls from Cook. The department, Cook told her, wanted her to resign immediately because the dust-up was "going to be on Glenn Beck tonight," according to Sherrod. No conversation. No investigation. No discussion. You're falsely accused. You're gone.
Note to Vilsack: This is not how you treat people. Worse, on Tuesday, Vilsack said that the controversy, regardless of the context of Sherrod's comments, "compromises the director's ability to do her job." He added:
This isn't a situation where we are necessarily judgmental about the content of the statement, that's not the issue here. I don't believe this woman is a racist at all. She's a political appointee, and her job is basically to focus on job growth in Georgia, and I have deep concern about her ability to do her job without her judgments being second-guessed.
In other words, the truth doesn't matter. If right-wing demagogues make a stink, we'll crucify the victim. This was a shameful statement.
Let's go back to Cook's remark to Sherrod about Glenn Beck, and flip the script. If a left-wing website had set up a Bush administration official during the Bush-Cheney years, can you see an overheated department functionary saying, "We have to get this person out before it's on Maddow"? (Rachel, excuse the comparison.) Of course not. The Bush-Cheney folks would have battled back. You don't allow ideological enemies -- who want you to fail -- to define the terms. That Beck figured into Vilsack's and Cook's calculations for a nanosecond is a tremendous defeat for the administration -- and an undeserved victory for Beck and his Tea Party followers. It ought to make supporters of the Obama administration sick. The White House, as could be expected, ran from this mess. On Tuesday, a White House official told CNN that it was not involved in forcing Sherrod out.
The NAACP, which at first supported the decision to bounce Sherrod, reversed course on Tuesday, saying, "We have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party activist Andrew Breitbart," who runs BigGovernment.com. Snookering can be undone -- and it should not be tolerated. The only decent course for Vilsack was to review the case and, if there are no new incriminating facts, offer Sherrod an apology and her job back. If the administration -- in the face of a relentless attack from the right -- doesn't fight for its own, how can voters count on it to fight for them? This is not about Beck-bashing. It's about taking charge and doing the right thing. All that is necessary for the triumph of blogging demagogues is that good people do nothing. Didn't a conservative once say that?
Click play below to watch the full video, released by the NAACP on Tuesday, of the Sherrod speech that started the controversy:
UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs apologized to Sherrod on behalf of the administration and said that Vilsack was trying to reach her to apologize and that Vilsack would be reviewing her dismissal. A little over an hour later, Vilsack held a press conference and publicly apologized to Sherrod. He said that he was talking with Sherrod about reinstating her at the USDA in a different position. For his part, Breitbart earlier in the day siad that he was "sorry" that Sherrod had become the issue. But he did not admit any wrongdoing and did not apologize for falsely branding her a power-abusing racist.
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