Firing of USDA official highlights larger political problems involving race

By Karen Tumulty and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; A01

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.

But in Sherrod's account, her firing was driven more by the exigencies of the news cycle -- and the administration's fear of conservative wrath. She said she was "harassed" to quit by USDA Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook, who told her to "do it, because you're going to be on 'Glenn Beck' tonight."

Sherrod added: "The administration was not interested in hearing the truth."

A video of the full speech -- which runs more than 45 minutes -- shows that Sherrod was trying to make a very different point from the one her critics saw in her inelegantly worded account of the episode with farmer Roger Spooner. An examination of her own prejudice, she said, taught her that "there is no difference between us."

"The only difference is the folks with money want to stay in power. It's always about money, y'all," she said. "God helped me to see that it's not just about black people. It's about poor people. I've come a long way."

Ultimately, she did help the farmer -- and on Tuesday, his family was among those who came to her defense. "She's a good friend. She helped us save our farm," Spooner's wife, Eloise, told CNN. "She's the one I give credit for helping us save our farm."

Sherrod laid some of the blame on the organization that had sponsored her speech. The NAACP, she told CNN, is "the reason this happened. They got into a fight with the tea party, and this all came out as a result of it."

Breitbart, in fact, subsequently told the network that he had been aware of the video since March and received a copy last weekend.

As for the NAACP, the story put it in the position of reversing itself twice, adding even more of a funhouse-mirror dimension to the brouhaha.

It had initially denounced Sherrod's comments as "shameful."

But as her version came out, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous declared that "we were snookered" by her conservative critics.

Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.

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