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Racial firestorm surrounds USDA employee’s ouster

- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 21, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration faced a blast of criticism Wednesday over its ouster of a black Agriculture Department employee for her remarks about race. The woman says she's not sure she would go back to her job now, even if asked.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that he would reconsider the department's decision to ask Shirley Sherrod to resign. Ms. Sherrod, the director of rural development in Georgia, was asked by department officials to leave her job on Monday after conservative bloggers posted an edited video of her saying that she initially didn't give a white farmer as much help as she could have 24 years ago, when she was working for a nonprofit farm aid group.

Ms. Sherrod says the video distorted her full speech, which described how she came to realize the white farmer needed her help and which she says was intended to promote racial reconciliation.

Ms. Sherrod says she submitted her resignation under pressure from the White House; the USDA said seeking the resignation was Vilsack's decision alone.

Mr. Vilsack decided to reconsider after speaking with the White House Tuesday evening, according to an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the call.

But in nationally broadcast interviews Wednesday, Ms. Sherrod said she doesn't know if she'd return to her job, even if asked, because she's unsure how she would be treated now.

The incident is a stumble for the Obama administration and for the NAACP. Both reversed their positions after condemning Ms. Sherrod based on the video first released Monday night. It is the latest in a series of race-related brouhahas to garner national attention since President Obama became the nation's first black chief executive.

A year ago, Mr. Obama convened a "beer summit" at the White House between a black Harvard scholar and the white police sergeant who arrested him after a confrontation outside the black man's home. The administration also faced criticism over Supreme Court then-nominee Sonia Sotomayor's comments about the virtues of having a "wise Latina" on the bench. And there was controversy over the Justice Department dropping an investigation into complaints that New Black Panther Party members threatened white voters at a Philadelphia polling place on the day Mr. Obama was elected.

Black leaders piled on Wednesday in criticizing Mr. Sherrod's ouster. The Rev. Jesse Jackson called on the administration to apologize and give Ms. Sherrod her job back, if she wants it. The Congressional Black Caucus, an influential bloc that represents 42 members of Congress, called for Ms. Sherrod to be reinstated immediately, saying Mr. Vilsack overreacted.

Soon after, the Rev. Al Sharpton said black leaders should refrain from calling for an apology from the Obama administration, saying that creates the impression that black leadership is fractured. "We are only greasing the rails for the right wing to run a train through our ambitions and goals for having civil and human rights in this country," Mr. Sharpton said.

The incident comes as the NAACP and the conservative tea party movement have been trading charges of racism.

The two-minute, 38-second clip posted Monday by BigGovernment.com was presented as evidence that the NAACP was hypocritical in its recent resolution condemning what it calls racist elements of the tea party movement. The website's owner, Andrew Breitbart, said the video shows the civil rights group condoning the same kind of racism it says it wants to erase. Biggovernment.com is the same outfit that gained fame last year after airing video of workers at the community group ACORN counseling actors posing as a prostitute and her boyfriend.

Reacting to the video on Monday, the USDA asked Ms. Sherrod to resign and the NAACP sent out a statement disavowing her comments, which were made at a local NAACP event. Ms. Sherrod then took to the media airwaves Tuesday, saying she was unfairly attacked and that the entirety of her remarks, delivered in March in Georgia, were not about racism, but part of a larger story about racial reconciliation and learning from her mistakes.

People who knew Ms. Sherrod were quick to defend her, including the wife of the white farmer who she discussed in the speech.

"We probably wouldn't have [our farm] today if it hadn't been for her leading us in the right direction," said Eloise Spooner of Iron City, Ga. "I wish she could get her job back because she was good to us, I tell you."

Both the NAACP and the USDA pulled back on their criticism after learning details about her speech and viewing the full video, which the NAACP posted on its website Tuesday evening.

Mr. Vilsack called the Rev. Jackson about the case, and he said the secretary had not yet made a decision when they spoke Tuesday.

Mr. Jackson said the case is even "more egregious" than last year's controversy over the arrest of a black Harvard scholar outside his home. In that case, Mr. Obama sat down at the White House for a chat over beer with Henry Louis Gates Jr., who said he was racially profiled, and white officer Sgt. James Crowley, who arrested him.

"With each passing hour this case becomes more intense, and just as the president moved quickly on the Gates-Crowley case he should move quickly on this case," Mr. Jackson said. "The politics of fear cannot overwhelm the politics of truth, and she has truth on her side."

In the clip posted on BigGovernment.com, Ms. Sherrod described the first time a white farmer came to her for help. It was 1986, and she worked for a nonprofit rural farm aid group. She said the farmer came in acting "superior" to her and she debated how much help to give him.

"I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land," Ms. Sherrod said.

Initially, she said, "I didn't give him the full force of what I could do" and only gave him enough help to keep his case progressing. Eventually, she said, his situation "opened my eyes" that whites were struggling just like blacks, and helping farmers wasn't so much about race but was "about the poor versus those who have."

In the full 43-minute video, Ms. Sherrod tells the story of her father's death in 1965, saying he was killed by white men who were never charged. She says she made a commitment to stay in the South the night of her father's death, despite the dreams she had always had of leaving her rural town.

"When I made that commitment I was making that commitment to black people and to black people only," she said. "But you know God will show you things and he'll put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people."

Ms. Sherrod said officials showed no interest in listening to her explanation when she was asked to resign. She said she was on the road Monday when USDA Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook called her and told her to pull over and submit her resignation on her Blackberry because the White House wanted her out.

"It hurts me that they didn't even try to attempt to see what is happening here, they didn't care," Ms. Sherrod said. "I'm not a racist. ... Anyone who knows me knows that I'm for fairness."

Ms. Sherrod appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America," CNN and NBC's "Today" show.

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