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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Who is Shirley Sherrod?

Who is Shirley Sherrod? The political world knows her as the person who was forced to resign from her position as Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture occured after conservative activist and blogger Andrew Breitbart posted video excerpts of Sherrod's address at a March 2010 NAACP event to his Big Government website. The NAACP condemned her remarks and U.S. government officials called on her to resign. Upon review of more of the video in context, the NAACP, White House officials, and Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, apologized soon after and Sherrod was offered a new position.The excerpts were posted by Breitbart on July 19, 2010, shortly after the NAACP passed a resolution "calling on Tea Party leaders to repudiate those in their ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches". He alleged that some NAACP members condoned racism despite publicly opposing it. In one video, Shirley Sherrod, an African-American woman, described her own attitude, while employed at a private advocacy firm in 1986, when a white farmer sought her help after his farm was about to be foreclosed. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack revisited Sherrod's firing after the full version of the video, which presents additional context for Sherrod's excerpted remarks, was made public. The event brought to the forefront current debates regarding racism in the United States, cable news reporting, internet ideological websites, and President Barack Obama's administration decisions. The Obama administration has since apologized to Sherrod, and has offered her another job with the Department of Agriculture. Sherrod has not yet decided if she will accept the job offer.

Preceding controversy

Excerpted video

On July 19, 2010, a video- titled "The NAACP Awards Racism"- released by conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart was posted to his website on the Internet, showing an African American woman making the following excerpted remarks to the NAACP Freedom Fund:
You know, the first time I was faced with helping a white farmer save his farm, he took a long time talking but he was trying to show me he was superior to me. I know what he was doing. But he had come to me for help. What he didn't know, while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him. I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland. And here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So, I didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough so that when he... I assumed the Department of Agriculture had sent him to me, either that, or the Georgia Department of Agriculture, and he needed to go back and report that I did try to help him. So I took him to a white lawyer that had attended some of the training that we had provided because Chapter 12 bankruptcy had just been enacted for the family farm. So I figured if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him.
That's when it was revealed to me that it's about poor versus those who have, and not so much about white--it IS about white and black, but it's not, you know, it opened my eyes because I took him to one of his own.

Resignation of Sherrod

After the first video surfaced, Sherrod was forced to resign from her post. According to Sherrod, she was called twice as she drove home by an official who had contacted her after prompting by the White House. The official was so insistent that she resign immediately that Sherrod pulled over to the side of the road to resign by email. The White House rejected any claims that they pressured Sherrod for a resignation with a statement that said: "The White House did not pressure her or USDA over the resignation. It was the Secretary’s decision, as he has said."
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack commented in the immediate aftermath of the initial video, "There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA, and I strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person... We have been working hard through the past 18 months to reverse the checkered civil rights history at the department and take the issue of fairness and equality very seriously".
Sherrod rejected any claims that she was racist and further stated that the incident "helped her learn to move beyond race" and that "she t[old] the story to audiences to make that point". Congressman Towns called for more information on the incident.

 Sherrod's account

According to Sherrod's own account, the story in the video is about a farmer named Roger Spooner, who in 1986 was the first white farmer to come to her for help. She narrates that "the land was being sold, and had in fact already been rented out from under him." At first, she felt that he had a superior attitude toward her causing her to recall her life in the South including the murder of her father, but further states:
I didn't let that get in the way of trying to help... I didn't discriminate ... If I had discriminated against him, I would not have given him any help at all because I wasn't obligated to do it by anyone ... I didn't have to help that farmer. I could have sent him out the door without giving him any help at all. But in the end, we became very good friends, and that friendship lasted for some years.
She notes that black farmers would not support Spooner: "I didn't know of any black farmers who would come out and try to support a white farmer at that point. ... I wasn't really sure of what I could do because at that time, I thought they [white people] had the advantages. I learned that was not the case." According to her, she had done her job, and took him to a white lawyer. She says that:
[I]f I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him ... but that lawyer failed to help ... I did not discriminate against [the farmer]. And, in fact, I went all out to frantically look for a lawyer at the last minute because the first lawyer we went to was not doing anything to really help him. In fact, that lawyer suggested they should just let the farm go. The second attorney [was able to help the farmer] file Chapter 11 bankruptcy to help the family stay on the farm.

 Spooner family's account

Roger Spooner said on CNN that Sherrod is not a racist, that Sherrod did everything she could for his family, and over twenty years later, he and Sherrod remain friends. The Spooners credit Sherrod with helping them save their farm: "If it hadn't been for her, we would've never known who to see or what to do," Roger Spooner said. "She led us right to our success." His wife, Eloise Spooner, said that later, "after things kind of settled down, she brought Sherrod some tomatoes out of her garden, and they had a good visit." Eloise Spooner recalled Sherrod as "nice-mannered, thoughtful, friendly; a good person." The couple were surprised by the controversy. "I don't know what brought up the racist mess," Roger Spooner said. "They just want to stir up some trouble, it sounds to me in my opinion." Eloise Spooner said that on seeing the story of Sherrod's resignation, "I said, 'That ain't right. They have not treated her right.'"

 Full video

The extended unedited video of her speech, later released by the NAACP, shows that in her full speech Sherrod emphasized what was only touched on in the excerpt, that she learned from the incident that poverty, not race, was the key factor in rural development. She also said she ultimately worked hard to save the farmer's land. She said:
Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who haven't. They could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to help poor people - those who don't have access the way others have".
She concluded the speech with her motto: "Life is a grindstone, but whether it grinds us down or polishes us up depends on us".

 Subsequent events

Ralph Paige, executive director of the nonprofit Sherrod worked for before being appointed to the USDA job in 2009, says that "[Shirley] garnered only praise and there were never any claims of discrimination against her", adding that "I can't praise Shirley enough, she holds no malice in her heart". The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People made a statement within hours of the video surfacing. The foundation's president Benjamin Jealous said in his first statement that:
Racism is about the abuse of power. Ms. Sherrod had it in her position at USDA. According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race. We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers. Her actions were shameful. While she went on to explain in the story that she ultimately realized her mistake, as well as the common predicament of working people of all races, she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done to this man. The reaction from many in the audience is disturbing. We will be looking into the behavior of NAACP representatives at this local event and take any appropriate action. 
However, after the entire videotape was released, the NAACP retracted their previous statement and said:
With regard to the initial media coverage of the resignation of USDA Official Shirley Sherrod, we have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias ... Having reviewed the full tape, spoken to Ms. Sherrod, and most importantly heard the testimony of the white farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans.
The NAACP did not specify in their statement if they still found the reaction of the audience disturbing and intended to look into the behavior of NAACP representatives.
Commentators, such as those from Fox News, have suggested that the resignation may have been an attempt by the Obama administration to refute accusations of "reverse racism" occurring during his term. They suggest that Sherrod was used by the administration as a "sacrificial lamb".
On July 20, 2010, in an interview with CNN's John King, Andrew Breitbart responded to questions regarding his intentions of releasing the video saying that:
This was not about Shirley Sherrod. It's about the NAACP. This was about the NAACP attacking the Tea Party and this [the video of Ms. Sherrod] is showing racism at an NAACP event. I did not ask for Shirley Sherrod to be fired. I did not ask for any repercussions for Shirley Sherrod. They were the ones that took the initiative to get rid of her. I – I do not – I think she should have the right to defend herself. [R]acism is used by the left and the Democratic Party to shut up opposition [a]nd [by releasing the Sherrod video] I am showing you that people who live in glass houses should not be throwing stones.
Breibart also questioned Eloise Spooner's true identity on CNN: "You tell me as a reporter how CNN put on a person today who purported to be the farmer’s wife? What did you do to find out whether or not that was the actual farmer’s wife? You’re going off of her word that the farmer’s wife is the farmer’s wife?"
After the uproar regarding Sherrod's resignation, Secretary Vilsack released a statement on the night of July 20 saying that the Department will "conduct a thorough review and consider additional facts". Sherrod asserts that the NAACP was "the reason why this happened. They got into a fight with the Tea Party, and all of this came out as a result of that." She adds that "she might not want her job back if it's offered ... because of all the publicity surrounding what happened … how would I be treated once I'm back there? I just don't know ... I would have to be reassured on that."

On July 21, 2010, Fox News rejected any claims that they helped inflame the situation. They issued the following statement: "[The network] did not make any mention of this story yesterday on the air until after Shirley Sherrod had already lost her job after Secretary Vilsack had already drawn his own conclusions — conclusions that the president apparently agreed with." While the story was not mentioned on the Fox News Channel until after Sherrod's resignation, the edited video and an accompanying article had been published on the Fox News website prior to her resignation. Later, the White House sought for an official review of the case. Vilsack, meanwhile, sent an e-mail regarding the issue that states "I am of course willing and will conduct a thorough review and consider additional facts to ensure to the American people we are providing services in a fair and equitable manner." Sherrod was at the CNN Center watching live when Robert Gibbs extended an apology to her. There, she stated that she had accepted the apology and welcomed the review although she felt that this experience was "bittersweet."
House Minority Leader John Boehner, a Republican, criticized Breitbart's airing of only a small portion of the video. He said, "It’s unfortunate that whoever laid this out there didn’t lay out the whole story, as opposed to a part of it... They only put a little piece of the story out there and people make judgments and they rush and they make bad decisions." In an interview with Media Matters reporter Joe Strupp, Sherrod stated, in response to the implication that Fox News was being racist in the initial reporting of the incident, "When you look at their [Fox News'] reporting, this is just another way of seeing that they are [racist]. But I have seen that before now. I saw their reporting as biased during the Bush Administration and the Clinton Administration."
In the afternoon of July 21, Vilsack said he offered a "personal and profound apology to Shirley Sherrod for forcing her to resign as a result of an out-of-context video posted to a conservative website." He also said that he has offered Ms. Sherrod a new position in the department and that she is taking time to consider it. During the night, Bill O'Reilly, who, on Monday July 19, was the first on cable television to air the edited version of the clip originally posted by Andrew Breitbart on, apologized to Sherrod for his remarks calling for her removal from office. On Wednesday, O'Reilly said, "I owe Ms. Sherrod an apology for not doing my homework, for not putting her remarks into the proper context." However, O'Reilly took issue with Sherrod's referring to the white lawyer she sent the white farmer to as "one of his own". He also described her as a "long-time liberal activist", citing her winning $300,000 "for her and her husband" when she sued the Department of Agriculture, and concluding she should not be "doing the people's business". In response to Sherrod's statement that Fox News "would love to take us back where black people were looking down, not looking white folks in the face, not being able to compete for a job out there and be a whole person", Fox News journalist Bret Baier stated that "Miss Sherrod, that is just not true. It's not true." Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer also said "She was a victim, but that doesn't entitle her to victimize others and to use these kinds of attack."
Sherrod stated on July 22 that she would consider taking legal action against Andrew Breitbart, who published the edited video on his website that led to her resignation. As of that date, Breitbart has not apologized to her, and his website still labels the Sherrod posting with the heading "Video Proof - The NAACP Rewards Racism." President Obama apologized to her personally later that day through a phone call that lasted for seven minutes.
In an interview with CNN reporter Anderson Cooper, Sherrod referred to Breitbart as "vicious" and as a "racist", and she also said that he would "like to get us stuck back in the times of slavery". National Review commentator Jonah Goldberg, who had previously called on Breitbart to apologize to Sherrod for releasing the incomplete video, argued that Sherrod should now apologize to Breitbart for implying that he supports reinstating slavery.

 Biography of Shirley Sherrod

Shirley Sherrod

Shirley Sherrod at a March 2010 regional USDA meeting.
Born Shirley Miller
Baker County, Georgia, U.S.
Ethnicity African-American
Alma mater Fort Valley State Col.
Albany State Univ. (sociology, 1970)
Antioch University (masters, community development, 1989)
Occupation Civil rights activist
Former United States Department of Agriculture Georgia State Director of Rural Development
Known for Pigford v. Glickman
Her forced resignation from the USDA in July 2010
Religion Baptist
Shirley Miller was born in 1948 in Baker County, Georgia, to Grace and Hosie Miller. In 1965, when she was 17 years old, her father, a deacon at the local Baptist Church, was shot to death by a white farmer, reportedly over a dispute about a few cows. No charges were returned against the shooter by an all-white grand jury. This was a turning point in her life and led her to feel that she should stay in the South to bring about change. That same year she was among the first black students to enroll in the previously all-white high school in Baker County.
She attended Fort Valley State College and later studied sociology at Albany State University in Georgia while working for civil rights with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee where she met her future husband, minister Charles Sherrod. She went on to Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio where she earned her master's degree in community development. She would later return to Georgia to work with the Department of Agriculture in Georgia "to help minority farmers keep their land." After finishing her education, Sherrod went to Lee County, Georgia, where she co-founded a black communal farm project known as New Communities Inc., which was modeled on kibbutzim in Israel. The 6,000-acre project was opposed by white farmers, who accused participants of being communists. A drought in the 1970s and the inability to get government loans ultimately led to the project to be shut down in 1985. Loan assistance went through the state government of Georgia, which was led by segregationist Governor Lester Maddox, and was difficult for black farmers with small land holdings to obtain.
Sherrod went on to work with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, to help black farmers keep their land. She and her husband lost their farm when they were unable to secure USDA loans. Sherrod along with other activists sued the USDA in Pigford v. Glickman in order to protect the remaining black farms which were in danger of becoming shut down. The Department agreed to compensation which was to be paid between January 1, 1981 and December 31, 1999. The event was considered as "the largest civil rights settlement in history, with nearly $1 billion being paid to more than 16,000 victims." A bill was passed in 2008 to allow another 70,000 more potential claimants to qualify. Sherrod was hired by the USDA in August 2009 as the Georgia director of rural development, becoming the first black person to hold that position.

 Selected analyses and commentary

 Left-right politics

Commentators have attributed the rivalry between the left and the right as an important factor in the controversy. The resignation came weeks after the Department of Justice’s decision to scale down a lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party, which the Tea Party movement attacked as racially motivated, and which led the NAACP to pass a resolution calling the Tea Party racist. Breitbart, who has described himself as a Tea Party member, stated that the release of the video is a response to the NAACP's resolution.The day before Breitbart posted the Sherrod video, the National Tea Party Federation had announced that it was distancing itself from Tea Party spokesperson Mark Williams because of a racially offensive letter Williams had written, also in response to the NAACP resolution.
Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton's Center for African American Studies, said some conservatives are manipulating white fears for political advantage:
"I think many white Americans are fearful that with Obama in the White House, and the diversity in his appointments, that the racial balance of power is shifting. And that's frightening both because people always are afraid to give up privilege, and because of the prospect of a black-and-brown backlash against a very ugly history. Some liberals have long maintained that racism requires power, and so black people can't be racist. Obama's election undercut the first argument and made the specter of black racism appear more threatening.
The Daily Caller has stated that liberals have also used racism for political advantage, citing liberal JournoList contributor, Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent, stating "If the right forces us all to either defend [Jeremiah] Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they've put upon us. Instead, take one of them –- Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares –- and call them racists." Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi commented that "the Sherrod incident should be a teachable moment for the left... It illustrates how easily a reckless charge of racism can destroy someone" and that the incident brought an "onslaught of manufactured distress and outrage" since similar attacks made out of context have happened to many other people.

 Media reactions

After the release of the full video, media outlets across the political spectrum criticized the decision to force Sherrod to resign. Newsweek characterized commentators' reactions to the controversy as "sad," "indignant," "accusatory," "sickened," and "scolding." One Huffington Post commentator likened Sherrod to Rosa Parks. MSNBC commentator Pat Buchanan also referred to Sherrod as like Rosa Parks, and then he said that the White House and the NAACP "threw Rosa Parks under the bus."
Jeff Greenfield of CBS News criticized the role of 24-hour news in this incident saying "The old United Press International wire service had a slogan: 'Get it first, but first get it right'. In the wake of the Shirley Sherrod story, it's worth asking whether more and more the second half of that slogan has been dumped into the trash bin." The BBC commented about "the absurdity of the spin-cycle in which American journalists and politicians are intertwined and about the febrile atmosphere that surrounds any story about race". The New York Times published a story indicating "the influence of right-wing web sites like the one run by Andrew Breitbart, the blogger who initially posted the misleading and highly edited video, which he later said had been sent to him already edited. ... Politically charged stories often take root online before being shared with a much wider audience on Fox. The television coverage, in turn, puts pressure on other news media outlets to follow up".
Mediaite journalist Steve Krakauer said that although broke the story, it was later reported by other online sites such as the one sponsored by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. On Monday night, the story was discussed on Larry King Live and Anderson Cooper 360, both on CNN, as well as the programs The O’Reilly Factor, Hannity, and On the Record, all on Fox. On Tuesday, FNC covered the story 39 times, MSNBC covered it 21 times, and CNN mentioned it 63 times. Fox News personalities have feuded repeatedly with MSNBC personalities about the Sherrod resignation, with Rachel Maddow accusing Fox of trying to "scare white people" and O'Reilly calling her and others "character assassins".
In response to the controversy, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture author Andrew Keen argued in CNN that the U.S. needs to adopt internet censorship restricting the ability of people to comment online similar to other countries.

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