Shirley Sherrod On The Path To Racial Healing

Former U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod was at the center of a controversy last year, when her remarks were taken out of context by conservative commentator Andrew Brietbart. Sherrod, who recently wrote an essay titled Toward Racial Healing shares her views on race relations.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're joined now by Shirley Sherrod, the former U.S. Department of Agriculture official who found herself at the center of a major controversy last year after remarks she made about white farmers were taken out of context and widely distributed by conservative media led by commentator Andrew Breitbart.

Shirley Sherrod was pressured to leave her job at the USDA and was even rebuked by the NAACP. But when her full remarks were released, it became clear that Sherrod had been grossly misrepresented. She was offered an apology by the NAACP and she was offered another job by the USDA, which she declined.

She's just written an essay for the American Prospect magazine as part of its color blinded series. The series examines racial healing in the Obama era and her essay is titled "Toward Racial Healing." And Shirley Sherrod's here with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SHIRLEY SHERROD (Writer, Former USDA Official): Thank you. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: How are you, by the way, if I may ask, after all that happened last year?

Ms. SHERROD: I'm doing good. Quite busy, but, you know, hanging in here.

MARTIN: Your piece leads, as I said, the series of essays that talks about the whole question of whether racial healing has occurred, what the state of our race relations is, particularly in the Obama era. Your essay is entitled "Toward Racial Healing," and I wanted to ask what you think what happened to you last year shows about the state of our racial dialogue.

Because, you know, some people might look at that as an example of why racism is still powerful. Other people might say, well, it ended up and the story corrected itself. It was corrected and that people came to sort of an understanding of, really, who you are. And some people might say that that's an example of how far we've come. I'd like to ask how you see it.

Ms. SHERROD: Well, if you look at how things unfolded, people were so - because of the fact that we have not dealt with racism here in this country, I'm sure mostly everyone in this country was ready. They were ready to believe what they initially heard. To me, it shows that we haven't - that no one was willing to take the time to see, is this true? You know, so it really put the burden on me to really fight hard to get the real story out. Thank God that it happened.

MARTIN: But people did take the time to find out if it was true. And, in fact, one of your strongest defenders and supporters was that the white farmer, who you named in your story, who came to your defense and said that this is absolutely not the Shirley Sherrod that I know. So when you look at all of that in totality, you say what?

Ms. SHERROD: Well, when I spoke of not looking for the truth, the initial story, when it first got out there, I'm sure you probably felt, oh my goodness, what is she thinking about? No one decided to check first. You know, it put the burden on me to try to help fight to get the truth out there.

And the white farmer, thank God he was still living. I think if he had not been living, then the story probably - the truth would have out there, but it would have been my word and no one really, really, really, really checking to get to the bottom of it. But when he came in - when the white farmer came in, it brought, you know, it made it where others were willing to hear, willing to look, willing to see.

MARTIN: You say in your essay that the healing process, whether on a political or personal level requires abandoning the convenient tribal impulses of emphasizing racial differences and stepping onto an unfamiliar path. And I recognize that this isn't your area. You know, your area is agriculture. But I would like to ask, based on your experience, how do you think we should go about doing that.

Ms. SHERROD: Well, you know, I've always - when we make a decision in our communities to, I'm sorry, my mind is - could you ask me again? I'm so sorry.

MARTIN: We only have about a minute left so I'd like to ask how you think we should go about doing that, what you suggest - stepping out of our kind of tribal loyalties.

Ms. SHERROD: Well, we have to look at communicating with each other, getting to know each other. When we do that, when we take the time on our local levels, to get to understand whites, to understand Hispanics or understand blacks, we find we can work together.

But because there is so much being put out there now to try to keep us divided, it keeps us from being able to get to that level of understanding so that we can deal with racism.

MARTIN: Shirley Sherrod is the former USDA director of rural development for Georgia. You can find her essay titled "Toward Racial Healing" by going to our website, npr.org. Go to the Programs menu and select TELL ME MORE. It's part of a series of essays in the American Prospect magazine that examines this whole question of racial healing and race relations in this era. And that entire series can be found at prospect.org\colorblind. Shirley Sherrod, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SHERROD: Thank you.

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