Ex-USDA Official's Tale Just Another Racial Landmine Example

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Shirley Sherrod is getting her 15 minutes of fame and what a 15 minutes it is.

She, of course, is the black woman, a former U.S. Agriculture Department official forced to resign because of what sounded like an admission that, more than two decades ago, long before she at the USDA but still working in a farmer-assistance program, she didn't help a white farmer in danger of losing his farm to the fullest extent possible because of race.

A video of Sherrod making the statement went into heavy rotation on conservative media outlets like and Fox News. Sherrod has been called a racist; the Obama Administration has been accused of harboring same.


In the video which was apparently made in March 2010 at dinner for a local NAACP chapter, Sherrod described a 1986 encounter with the white farmer and went through her mind at the time." She told the audience:

"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."

She indicated she didn't help him full out, leaving the impression that the farmer's race was a factor.

But just seconds later in the same 2010 speech, Sherrod made the point that in her work with the white farmer, she realized that race wasn't the issue but rather economic class.

Sherrod said an Agriculture Department undersecretary called her Monday and told her that the White House wanted her resignation.

Sherrod was asked to resign from the Agriculture Department. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said her resignation was necessary because the video would raise questions about her decisions going forward as the USDA's rural development director for Georgia.

"In the future, if people were not satisfied with the decisions that the rural development director made, they could attribute the decision to a wide variety of reasons that weren't necessarily related to the job."

Vilsack also denied that he was called by or received pressure from the White House.

"I didn't speak to anybody at the White House... I made this decision. It was my decision. There wasn't anybody from the White House that contacted me at all."

The story only becomes more fascinating. The white farmer at the center of the story, Roger Spooner and his wife Eloise, have defended Sherrod on CNN, crediting her with helping them save their farm.

Of those accusing Sherrod of racism, Spooner said:

ROGER SPOONER: They don't know what they're talking about.  Let me tell it. Let me say. They don't know what they're talking about, if you want to know my opinion...

ELOISE SPOONER: She always treated us really good. And she was nice-mannered, thoughtful, friendly. Good person.

Like Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, the NAACP initially denounced Sherrod. It has since said it's re-evaluating its position because there may be more to the story than it initially was aware of.

One additional factor that CNN reporting: Sherrod's father was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1965.

This is some story, all the way around.

One of the only things we can be sure about with a story like this is that the issue of race relations in America has strewn about many a landmine. You can never be sure when you'll step on one.

And the racial landmine has become only more dangerous because of its combination with YouTube.

It's probably safe to say that Sherrod, like many other people who've found themselves upended, never saw it coming.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from