Firing of USDA official highlights larger political problems involving race

By Karen Tumulty and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A fuzzy video of an Agriculture Department official opened a new front Tuesday in the ongoing war between the left and right over which side is at fault for stoking persistent forces of racism in politics.

Shirley Sherrod, a black woman appointed last July as the USDA's Georgia state director of rural development, was forced to resign after a video surfaced of her March 27 appearance at an NAACP banquet. In a speech, she described an episode in which, while working at a nonprofit organization 24 years ago, she did not help a white farmer as much as she could have. Instead, she said, she sent him to one of "his own kind."

The video was posted Monday on the Web site of conservative activist Andrew Breitbart as a counterattack on the NAACP, which passed a resolution last week accusing the "tea party" movement of having "racist elements."

But for some on the right, Sherrod's comments also reinforced a larger, more sinister narrative: that the administration of the first African American to occupy the White House practices its own brand of racism.

The controversy comes on the heels of another one surrounding the Justice Department's decision to scale back its 2008 voter-intimidation lawsuit against a group known as the New Black Panther Party.

Suspicions on the right that Obama has a hidden agenda -- theories stoked in part by conservative media and sometimes involving race -- have been a subplot of his rise, beginning almost as soon as he announced his campaign. They lie beneath many of the questions that conservatives on the political fringes have raised about his motives, his legitimacy and even his citizenship.

On the other hand, some of the president's allies on the left have at times reflexively seen racism as the real force behind the vehemence of the opposition against Obama's policies and decisions.

The White House has pointedly distanced itself from this line of defense. When Vice President Biden was asked Sunday on ABC about the NAACP resolution regarding the tea party, for instance, he said that racist sentiment exists only at the periphery of the new political movement.

"The president doesn't believe that the tea party is a racist organization," Biden said. "I don't believe that. Very conservative, very different views on government and a whole lot of things. But it is not a racist organization."

The sensitivity to Sherrod's comments -- particularly in an agency that has a history of discrimination against minority farmers -- was evidenced by the dispatch with which Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ordered her to resign.

Both Vilsack and an official at the White House denied Sherrod's assertion, in an interview on CNN, that her firing had come at the instigation of the White House. The decision, they insisted, was Vilsack's alone.

"The controversy surrounding her comments would create situations where her decisions, rightly or wrongly, would be called into question, making it difficult for her to bring jobs to Georgia," Vilsack said in a statement.

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