Firing of USDA official Shirley Sherrod now under review

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Amid growing pressure, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the USDA will reconsider its decision to ask an employee to resign over racially tinged remarks she made at an NAACP banquet.

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By Karen Tumulty and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; 9:07 AM

A fuzzy video of a racially themed speech that prompted the ouster this week of an Agriculture Department official has opened a new front in the ongoing war between the left and right over which side is at fault for stoking persistent forces of racism in politics.

By early Wednesday, as the full context of the video became known, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he would review his decision to ask USDA official Shirley Sherrod to step down.

Sherrod, a black woman appointed last July as the agency's Georgia state director of rural development, was forced out after a blogger circulated a video showing part of her March 27 appearance at an NAACP banquet. In her speech, Sherrod 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."

(Richard Cohen: The cowardice of Tom Vilsack)

The video segment 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."

Late Tuesday, the NAACP released a video recording of the entire speech, including the part when Sherrod describes how she ultimately did assist the farmer. In the process, Sherrod tells her audience, she came to rethink her racial assumptions and conclude that "there is no difference between us."

(Discuss the Shirley Sherrod firing with the reporters of this story)

For some on the right, Sherrod's comments as initially reported 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.


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