I feel bad for Shirley Sherrod. Not just because she lost her job. Not just because it may be that she did not do what she is accused of doing. Not because her only crime may be the very postmodern transgression of being on video and out of context. (Hear her remarks in context here.) I feel bad for Shirley Sherrod because she is only the latest example of how difficult it is for us to get beyond our own racial race. I feel bad for her because I feel bad for all of us. We’re stuck. Her firing and the overreaction from the White House, the USDA and the NAACP are just more depressing plot points in the sad story of race in America.
The irony here is so rich that it is almost farcical. After almost 150 years of the USDA being a bastion of racist and discriminatory practices that hurt hundred of thousands of black people, a black USDA employee is accused of not helping a white farmer because he was white, and gets fired. It’s a small thing, but that’s what racism is: small, stupid and always painful. It appears that Sherrod told this story on herself, but she is bigger and smarter than that and was actually making the opposite point.
Sherrod is not just a victim of current partisan circumstances; she is also a victim of our long, tangled and painful history of race. Her “confession” that she did not apply “the full force of what I could do” to help a white farmer save his farm is exactly the kind of thing that had been happening to black farmers who dealt with the USDA since President Abraham Lincoln established the “people department” in 1862. Only that is not what Sherrod did. For generations, white employees of the USDA, particularly in the South, used the full force of what they could do to make sure that black people were shut out of loan, grant and housing programs that should have been open to everyone.
The class-action suit that tried to redress this harm, famously known as Pigford, was filed in 1997 and settled in 1999. Pigford has achieved iconic civil rights status for the light it cast on the historical wrongs committed by the department. U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman, who issued the ruling in the case, looked squarely at the history: “Today there are fewer than 18,000 African-American farms in the United States, and African-American farmers now own less then 3 million acres of land,” he wrote. “The United States Department of Agriculture and the county commissioners to whom it has delegated so much power bear much of the responsibility for this dramatic decline.”
The suit alleged that not only had the Agriculture Department discriminated against black farmers, but when they complained about that discrimination, the USDA did not investigate or respond to those charges of bias. One of the conditions of the settlement was that the federal government would pay $50,000 to each farmer who sought USDA help and did not get it.
But when the Obama administration took office, the farmer found a champion in former Iowa governor and new Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who announced that fixing the civil right enforcement problems and the department’s poor reputation were among his top priorities.
Vilsack concluded that the eight years of the Bush administration that followed Pigford only made a bad problem worse. More than 14,000 civil rights claims were filed against the USDA during the Bush administration, but almost none got any attention.