Shirley Sherrod, unfairly dismissed

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"A DISSERVICE was done, an apology is owed." These were the words White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs used in explaining the rash and patently unjust dismissal of Shirley Sherrod, an Agriculture Department official based in Georgia.

The unfortunate series of events that led to Ms. Sherrod's firing began Monday, when a conservative Web site posted a video of a portion of a speech Ms. Sherrod delivered in March to a local NAACP group. Ms. Sherrod, who is African American, recounted her decision to make a less than robust effort to help a white farmer in danger of losing his land to foreclosure. By nightfall, after the Obama administration became aware of the video, Ms. Sherrod found herself unemployed; an official from the Agriculture Department tracked her down by phone and ordered her to resign. Ms. Sherrod has said in numerous interviews during the past two days that she was told by the USDA official that the White House demanded her ouster; the White House denies this. After the dismissal, the NAACP followed quickly with a statement decrying Ms. Sherrod's actions.

Yet by Wednesday, Mr. Gibbs offered a heartfelt apology on behalf of the administration, and the NAACP had also issued a mea culpa. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who says he made the firing decision, personally apologized to Ms. Sherrod on Wednesday and told her that the department would have another job for her should she decide to return.

Why the sudden reversal? It turns out that the episode with the white farmer occurred 24 years ago, long before Ms. Sherrod was employed by the Agriculture Department. Ms. Sherrod ultimately fought hard to help the farmer save his land -- a fact confirmed by the farmer and his wife. Ms. Sherrod says in the video that her interaction with the farmer triggered an epiphany about the importance of treating those in need fairly, no matter their color or ethnicity.

Yet profound damage was done to Ms. Sherrod because of a series of irresponsible and thoughtless acts, starting with the posting of a video snippet that took Ms. Sherrod's words out of context. What made the story tantalizing to the media outlets that seized on it was the fact that Ms. Sherrod had given her speech at a banquet for the local NAACP; just days before the video surfaced, the NAACP had accused the Tea Party of harboring racist elements.

But most of the blame must fall on the Obama administration and Mr. Vilsack. It is unconscionable that no one in the administration demanded to see the full video or text of the speech before ordering Ms. Sherrod's dismissal. Instead, officials rushed to respond to an Internet video of questionable authenticity to insulate themselves from political fallout. Cowardice prevailed over principle; panic obscured common sense and decency. In the process, a woman who has worked all of her life to help victims of poverty and discrimination became the latest casualty of a cruel and mindless political game of gotcha.

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