More diversity might have served USDA well in Sherrod fiasco

By Joe Davidson
Friday, July 30, 2010; B03


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.

"If you don't have any black people in your office, where is the real commitment?" she asked, referring to Vilsack's inner circle. "Is the commitment real?"

The department's Web site, however, does show blacks, Latinos and women in positions of importance.

And what does it say about the commitment to fairness and justice if federal employees who discriminated against black farmers could do so with impunity?

"Discrimination happens in USDA. . . . ," Sherrod told NBC last week. "And it's there because the agency never did deal with the people who caused it. 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."

African Americans continue to lose land at a pace that could leave the nation without "any black people . . . producing the food that we eat," she said.

Sherrod said she had been at the agency only 11 months when administration officials -- apparently in a panic over what Fox News might say about an edited videotape that severely misrepresented her views on race relations -- had her pull her government-issued Chevrolet Impala to the side of the road and submit her resignation via e-mail through her cellphone.

Earlier, before Sherrod got on the road, she had been told that she would be placed on administrative leave. Sherrod, concerned about the projects she was working on, informed her employees. Then they prayed.

The administrative leave lasted only 30 to 45 minutes, according to Sherrod, before Cheryl Cook, Agriculture's deputy undersecretary, called back, reaching Sherrod in the car, to say the White House wanted Sherrod's resignation immediately.

"It was so cold," she said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company