A few weeks ago, hardly anyone had ever heard of Shirley Sherrod. Now, across America hers’ is a household name. Americans not only know who Sherrod is, they already had an opinion about her based on what they’ve been told about her being a Black federal employee who used her position to discriminate against Whites. Race-baiters framed the issue as Black racist ranting, but the episode provided President Obama and Americans an opportunity to discuss whether race should still play a role in federal and state policy and politics.
In the end, will it just became a case of ‘a job lost, and a job regained’ or can more be done to discuss ways to eliminate the racial disparities that exist in the country? Irony upon irony, the US Department of Agriculture from which Sherrod was fired for appearing to discriminate, has been the epitome of institutional racism for decades. Because of America’s agricultural past there is a legacy of institutional racism at USDA. When Tom Vilsack took over as Secretary, he’d vowed to rectify the USDA’s history of discrimination claims. The Sherrod case now undergirds Vilsack’s case before the US Senate for funding of a $1.15 billion owed to thousands of African American farmers. In the settlement Vilsack seeks, the USDA admits bias practices against Black farmers between 1983 and 1997. The case not only shows USDA’s decades-long unfair treatment of African Americans when deciding how to allocate farm loans and disaster payments, but intransigent in settling.
The controversy showed that the nation’s first Black President has no concept of a White House Black Outreach component, as advocated by South Carolina Congressman John Clyburn. Through lack of sensitivity and investigation President Obama’s administration totally bungled the situation. They told Vilsack to fire Sherrod for what they thought she said in a speech at an NAACP banquet in March in Georgia. After firing Sherrod, the light came on in Vilsack’s head causing him to call her the next day to ask that she consider taking a new post that would make use of her unique set of experiences. The former Governor of Idaho said "I want to renew the commitment of this department to a new era in civil rights."
Surely Ms. Sherrod can help USDA right its wrongs, but the job being offered should be more in the $125,000 salary range than the Schedule C $85,000 she was earning as USDA Georgia State Director for Rural Development. Miss Shirley has over four decades doing rural development and could tell the “Chicago Organizer” a thing or two “She has had an amazing impact on the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of families and communities throughout the South” says former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.
Ms. Sherrod is a Kellogg National Fellow and has well established credentials eradicating historical race, class, cultural, religious and gender barriers experienced by southern rural Black women. She is a role model in advocacy, organizing and implementation of rural development programs and projects. In 1965, with SNCC’s Southwest Georgia Project, Ms. Sherrod helped to start New Communities Inc. land trust. She organized rural women’s childcare/preschool programs throughout southwest Georgia. Ms. Shirley Miller Sherrod has received a host of awards, but the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Albany Alumnae Chapter’s “Community Role Model Award” probably says it all about who she is and what she does.
It’s just a job for the moment, but credit should be given to Secretary Vilsack for the move he made. Barack should follow suit with somebody like Shirley. John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association says “The incident is an opportunity for Obama to take a stronger look at race relations in the country. Cynthia McKinney, a long-time Black Farmers advocate, says “The Shirley Sherrod episode shows how quickly this administration is to throw legitimate Black interests under the bus”.
Obama should be like Secretary Vilsack and put somebody like Sherrod close by. She said of Obama: "I’d like to help him see some of the things that he could do in the future."
(William Reed is available for speaking engagements via BaileyGroup.org)