USDA Resignation, Sparked By Video, Ignites Feud on Race

The Shirley Sherrod incident has cast a light on how sensitive the United States still is on the issue of race. For an additional perspective on this host Michel Martin talks with Jerry Reynolds who is chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He’s an African-American Republican, appointed to the Commission by President George W. Bush.

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Now, of course along with the question of the political questions, whether the Obama administration overreacted to the incident under prodding by political antagonists, this incident has obviously ignited a number of sensitive questions about how we talk about race in this country: what is acceptable to be said, and by whom.

For a number of white conservative activists, the incident is being used to advance the argument that there is a racial double standard, that African-Americans are permitted to say things that whites cannot. But for many liberals and African-Americans, this is an example of another African-American official allegedly being targeted for political ends.

We thought additional perspective was called for here, so we decided to call Gerry Reynolds. He's chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which sorts out some of these sensitive issues. He's a Republican, appointed to the commission by President George W. Bush. I think it's fair to mention he's a bit under the weather, and he was kind enough to join us despite that. So, thank you for joining us.

Mr. GERRY REYNOLDS (Chairman, U.S. Civil Rights Commission): Hello, there.

MARTIN: Now, if I could just get your baseline reaction to this incident as it has unfolded. Do you think that Shirley Sherrod's comments taken in their totality should have caused her to be fired?

Mr. REYNOLDS: Looking at what is out there to date, it is clear to me that her superiors did not give her an opportunity to explain herself. Based on the additional footage that's been aired, it's clear that her the original snippet was, you know, taken out of context. But at the end of the day, this is a matter of process. You would hope that as a matter of due process that she would've been given an opportunity to state her case. And you would've hoped that her superiors would've collected all the relevant facts before deciding to essentially terminate her.

But that's not how it's unfolded. I served in her administration before and it's unfortunate that there are times where decisions are made and whether they're fair or not - fairness may not be in consideration in the decision-making process.

MARTIN: What is your sense of how the kind of overarching racial dialogue right now plays into this? And I think it also fair to mention that your commission also recently held hearings where J. Christian Adams testified. He's a Department of Justice career attorney who says that he resigned because he didn't feel that the administration was aggressively pursuing a voting rights case that he feels they should have pursued. And he feels that this, in his words, he's been a guest on this program, suggest that there is a double standard. And you recently heard testimony from him. Do you think that that factors into this?

Mr. REYNOLDS: Well, the atmosphere, in terms of having a thoughtful discussion on issues that intersects with race, it's very difficult. Both sides generally come in locked into their position. Both sides exhibit very little trust. And, quite frankly, I can understand the lack of trust because they have individuals on both sides that have taken advantage of some of these situations.

But going but you also mentioned the commission's investigation into the New Black Panther Party. What we're trying to do is gather the facts. Congress has authorized us to investigate allegations of voter intimidations. In this case we have a videotape that is it's a damning videotape. And we have invited the Department of Justice, and we have to cooperate with us. We want to know why the department elected to withdraw the complaint against three of the four defendants and to narrow the scope of the sanctions sought.

MARTIN: I understand. That is also a complicated case. If we could just - and perhaps it is worthy of further conversation here. As I mentioned, we have interviewed J. Christian Adams on this matter as well as other parties, too.

Finally, I did want to ask, what do you think is a fair course of action in this case involving Shirley Sherrod, where she did these comments, she's talked about something that happened 20 years ago. She seemed to be inviting it as a testimony for change of heart. She was not a government official at the time. She was the incidents that she described. And her the people she was involved with are advocating for her. And yet there are still people who feel that her comments indicate that she cannot serve in the position that she was in. What do you think should happen now?

Mr. REYNOLDS: I think that the administration should look into the facts to see if she currently embraces those views to confirm or refute her statement that these statements were made years ago. The decision should be based on the facts. From what I'm gathering, what she did was, you know, it was a courageous thing, talking about a personal shortcoming and also talking about how she's overcome that shortcoming.

MARTIN: Gerald Reynolds is the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He joined us on the phone from his office. Thank you so much for joining us.

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