Shirley Sherrod and the Politics of Overreaction
In a climate of witch hunts over racism, there's no time for the whole story about what the USDA employee really meant.
Vilsack ordered a review. "We just need to know," he told me in the spring of 2009. "One of two things happened: Either we don't let people know when they have a legitimate claim or we were not reviewing them properly."
The sensitivity and focus attached to this case is such that in February of this year, Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder announced a settlement of $1.25 billion to pay more Pigford claims, and the administration budgeted $1.15 billion in a 2010 supplemental budget request for those settlement costs.
This was not the time for Sherrod to say that she did not do what she could to help a farmer because of his race. This is the kind of this that will get you fired at USDA. In a statement released by the USDA Tuesday, Vilsack said he had accepted Sherrod's resignation, and took the time to repeat that the department would not tolerate discrimination.
The irony, of course, is that Shirley Sherrod may be guilty of no such thing. Just to recap:
Sherrod's story about the white farmer took place more than two decades before she worked for USDA, and the entire point of the story was that race is not an issue. The story was about how she and the family became friends and how she eventually helped them save their farm.
In the wake of her resignation, the farmer's wife, Eloise Spooner, told CNN that Sherrod went all out to help them. "She's the one I can credit with helping us saving our farm," Spooner said, but 26 years later, conservative bloggers could rewrite that story to great effect.
Soon after Obama took office, Vilsack noted that some of the lingering problems had to do with USDA'S troubled history: "I think it is a reflection of the past and decisions that were made long ago, and we are still dealing with the consequences," he said.
Add Shirley Sherrod to the list of consequences. We're stuck in consequences.
Terence Samuel is The Roots editor-at-large. His first book, The Upper House: A Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the U.S. Senate, was released in May by Palgrave Macmillan. Follow him on Twitter.