Some find irony in Shirley Sherrod's USDA incident

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; A18

There is a glaring irony in the wake of Shirley Sherrod's firing and subsequent reinstatement offer, say those who know her in Georgia.

She lost her job in a matter of hours under the suspicion of racism, but officials in the Department of Agriculture who were found to have withheld loans from Sherrod and her husband's farming cooperative were never fired.

(Live chat with the farmer Eloise Spooner)

"Discrimination happens in USDA. . . . And it's there because the agency never did deal with the people who caused it," Sherrod said Thursday morning on the "Today" show. "No one lost their job because they discriminated against black farmers, Hispanic farmers, Native American farmers, women farmers. . . . Those individuals . . . some have retired, but many of them are still there."

(Shirley Sherrod asks: 'Where are we headed?')

That is the irritation that remains as the White House and the USDA try to repair their mistreatment of Sherrod, who was fired based on a selectively excerpted video that made it appear as if she had denied help to a white farmer, said Jerry Pennick, director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, where Sherrod worked before joining the USDA. The government's poor treatment of her has resonated loudly and badly among farmers who have faced discrimination.

"The government stands to pay out over $2 billion for discrimination against African Americans and not one person in the department has been fired because of that, yet the first African American woman to [oversee rural development] in Georgia was fired for alleged racism," Pennick said. "And nobody has been fired for proven discrimination."

David Cantu, a farmer in Hidalgo County, Tex., who is a part of the Hispanic farmers' lawsuit against the USDA, said he senses "resentment" from the people in the department's county office. "Some of the people doing the discrimination at the county level are still there, and the people that they trained are still there," he said.

John Zippert, director of operations for the federation in Alabama, said he filed hundreds of discrimination claims against the county supervisor in Sumpter, Ala., but the supervisor -- who has since died -- kept his job for more than 30 years.

John Boyd, a farmer in southern Virginia who has lobbied for black farmers on Capitol Hill, said that after he settled his discrimination complaint against the USDA, he had to continue to go back to the county supervisor against whom he had filed the complaint. "They threw him a big retirement party," Boyd said.

A USDA official defended Secretary Tom Vilsack's track record on civil rights in a statement outlining his efforts -- including providing civil rights training to officials in state Farm Service agencies and Rural Development offices, where much of the historical discrimination occurred. In addition, many of the complaints filed against USDA employees have reached the statue of limitations, USDA officials said, and Congress would have to reopen the cases to deal with firing people. Vilsack has also hired a company to analyze the agency's programs to identify problematic areas.

"We have been working to turn the page on the sordid civil-rights record at USDA," Vilsack said this week.

There have been problems with discrimination at the department for decades. In 1965, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found civil rights abuses in how farmers and employees were treated. Reports in the 1980s and '90s found that such abuses were forcing minority farmers out of business.

(Sherrod's history of civil service)

In 1999, the department agreed to pay black farmers for past discrimination. The suit was led by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and settled for more than $1 billion. Sherrod and her husband, who ran a 6,000-acre farming cooperative called New Communities in the 1970s, were awarded $13 million to be shared among their cooperative in a settlement with the USDA last year, including $330,000 for their pain and suffering, according to Sherrod's lawyer Rose Sanders

The case was later reopened to allow additional black farmers to apply for compensation, and Vilsack announced in February that the USDA had settled with them for $1.25 billion -- which must be appropriated by Congress. The USDA and the Department of Justice are also working with Hispanic and women farmers to close their case for $1.33 billion, a USDA official said.

Pennick said Vilsack had built up good will with minority farmers by meeting with them to address their concerns and speaking often about "changing the culture" of the USDA, but the treatment of Sherrod has left a bitter taste. "It stands a chance of erasing all they have done," he said.

Sherrod may be more forgiving. At an April ceremony honoring her achievements at her alma mater, Fort Valley State University, she talked about her experience at the agency. "God has a sense of humor," she said. "I oversee some of my former enemies, but I hold no grudge."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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