More diversity might have served USDA well in Sherrod fiasco

"Let's not be so quick to judge," was Shirley Sherrod's message to a gathering of black journalists.
"Let's not be so quick to judge," was Shirley Sherrod's message to a gathering of black journalists. (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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By Joe Davidson
Friday, July 30, 2010


When President Obama spoke Thursday to the National Urban League meeting in Washington about the unjustified firing of Shirley Sherrod, he had these words of wisdom:

"We should all make more of an effort to discuss with one another, in a truthful and mature and responsible way, the divides that still exist -- the discrimination that's still out there, the prejudices that still hold us back."

As he was talking, Sherrod, the fired Agriculture Department official, was across the country -- in this town with its beautiful beaches and busy seaport -- at the National Association of Black Journalists conference. When asked what is the lesson to be learned from her dismissal, she, too, had a good word for the day: "Let's not be so quick to judge."

Although no one can argue with Obama and Sherrod on these soft and cuddly messages, the lessons we need to learn from this racially charged controversy are far sharper than those that could have been culled from a greeting card.

Sherrod, a candid veteran of the civil rights movement, got more to the point when she talked about the demographics in Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's office. "Maybe if the secretary had some African Americans around him," she said, someone might have said, "Hey, you better take a look at this," before he believed the bogus charges against her.

But Vilsack didn't look before he jumped to conclusions. When he did learn the whole story, he apologized and offered Sherrod a new job, deputy director of advocacy and outreach. She's thinking about it.

Vilsack certainly learned a lesson, but there's a larger one the administration should continue to study. It's about diversity in the top ranks of the federal government. Obama, of course, is a symbol of this nation's diversity. His election was a testament to our ability to see beyond color (though some of the ways he's been characterized by opponents provide evidence to the contrary).

But diversity does not stop being an issue because a black man is in the White House. The commitment to diversity must filter through Obama's West Wing staff and his top appointments, through all the agencies and the way they operate.

Diversity -- racial, ethnic and gender -- is important to any organization, as are programs to increase the employment of the disabled. It's critical not just because a rainbow staff makes a pretty photo. Diversity of people generates diversity of thought, new approaches to old problems, innovative thinking. Diversity is good for business, particularly the public's business.

Vilsack, certainly, has spoken eloquently of the need for USDA to correct a history of racism in the implementation of its programs. After decades as an activist, Sherrod joined the Obama administration as an appointed USDA official in Georgia to, among other things, help the president and the secretary in their effort to right wrongs done to black farmers.

But administration attempts to set things right down on the farm, might be more effective if Vilsack had more diversity than he already does among his top staff. Sherrod said there is a dearth of people of color in significant positions at the department.

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