Why Tom Vilsack Should Keep His Job

The Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association is calling for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to resign in the wake of a fiasco that saw USDA employee Shirley Sherrod fired unnecessarily late last month.

In a press release, BFAA President Thomas Burrell, whose organization represents more than 10,000 black farmers or their heirs, says:

[The] USDA and its white employees have been found guilty of discriminating against black farmers by a federal district court judge over 13,000 times in the Pigford v. Vilsack class action lawsuit. Not one of these white employees has ever been fired by Mr. Vilsack for their court ordered unconstitutional and racist behavior against one of those black farmers. Zero tolerance applies only when discrimination is alleged, not proven, to be committed by an African-American USDA employee.


To start, Burrell’s statement is simplistic to the point of being misleading. While the Pigford suit did indeed expose a shamefully large number of cases of discrimination within the USDA, most of those cases date back to the early 1980s, long before Vilsack was involved with either the USDA or the Department of Agriculture. Condemning Vilsack for not firing white racists in the wake of the Pigford lawsuit assumes both that those racists are still around to fire and that Vilsack has intentionally avoided seeking them out if they do exist. Actually, nothing is further from the truth.

Here’s an abridged list of civil rights improvements made at the USDA under Tom Vilsack, according to Beginning Farmers:

  • USDA revamped the program civil rights complaints system to improve the complaint process. For the first time since 1997, USDA now has investigators on staff to do the field work needed to investigate complaints.
  • After a competitive bidding process, USDA has hired outside, private firm to do an independent external analysis of the department’s service delivery programs to identify problem areas and fixes. The firm will consider programs at USDA to identify barriers to equal and fair access for all USDA customers.
  • In April, USDA suspended all foreclosures in the Farm Service Agency’s loan program for 90 days to provide an opportunity to review loans that could have been related to discriminatory conduct.
  • USDA’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights has initiated a series of unprecedented civil rights trainings for USDA field leadership teams and required trainings for all political appointees and senior departmental leadership.

Exacerbating these misguided calls for the “racist” Vilsack’s head is that they neglect to understand how politics works. If the BFAA actually believes that Vilsack acted alone in firing Sherrod—despite the fact that Sherrod herself has said the order came from higher up—then they’re showing naïveté unbecoming of serious political organization. It’s doubtful that Obama himself signed Sherrod’s pink slip, but it was certainly someone higher than Secretary Vilsack, who is, in fact, being a really swell guy by taking all this heat for the administration. And if he loses his job over this mess, it will be the first time in history that Barack Obama actually threw someone under the bus.

-Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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