Ex-USDA Official's Tale Just Another Racial Landmine Example : The Two-Way Race is still a landmine in a time of what some thought was a post-racial presidency.

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

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

An online video cost Shirley Sherrod her job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture yesterday. Sherrod was named Georgia director for Rural Development a year ago by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

In a talk before a local Georgia chapter of the NAACP in March, she told a story that she said illustrated how she'd come to see that the problems of farmers trying to hold on to their land were not issues of black versus white.

She related an encounter in the 1980s when a white farmer came to her at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, which was working to save black-owned farms. She said she was struck by the problems blacks had faced holding on to their land, and here was a white farmer seeking her help. And then she said this.

Ms. Shirley Sherrod (Former Georgia Director, Rural Development): I didn't give him the full force of what I could do.

SIEGEL: I didn't give him the full force of what I could do, she said, I did enough.

Well, evidently, that was enough for a deputy under secretary of Agriculture to call her up and tell her that the White House wanted her resignation.

Ed O'Keefe has been covering this story for The Washington Post and he joins us now.

And first, can you explain where this video came from?

Mr. ED O'KEEFE (Reporter, The Washington Post): As we understand it, it was filmed by a public access or paid access TV station in Georgia that was hired by the local NAACP chapter to film their annual banquet. But they have no clue how this video ended up in the hands of a Website called BigGovernment.com, which was started by the conservative activist and commentator Andrew Breitbart.

Andrew told me earlier today he received it from a, quote, "good Samaritan," unquote, who didn't want to identify himself for fear of the inevitable liberal backlash, he said.

But essentially, the television station tells me that this was a 40-minute speech. It is currently being reviewed by the local chapter of the NAACP because they own the tape. And he hopes, the television station director does, that the NAACP will at some point very soon release the entire speech so that people can hear everything that Ms. Sherrod had to say.

SIEGEL: The excerpt at least was cited by the Website BigGovernment.com as evidence here of reverse discrimination, of an African-American woman saying, I didn't do all that I could for someone who came to me, not at the USDA but some more than 20 years ago at this private group, because the farmer was white. She says that misrepresents the larger story she told about the white farmer.

Mr. O'KEEFE: Indeed. She says that she actually became good friends with this white farmer and his wife, that they remain friends to this day, and that she's learned to understand and grew through this process to understand that it didn't matter what the color of their skin, it just mattered that this farmer wanted to keep their job.

Now, did she say it in that way? No. It was a rather impolitic delivery, at least if you watch this clip. But certainly, BigGoverment.com, a Website that is fighting the size and the growth of federal government -as many conservatives do - put this one little two and a half minute clip out there in effort to make people think that a USDA official - who has oversight of about a billion dollars in grants - was out there unfairly targeting or not assisting white farmers, when, in fact, the situation that they're leading you to believe happened recently, happened in 1986 when Ms. Sherrod worked for a non profit group that was working with black farmers and not with USDA.

SIEGEL: Ms. Sherrod, as she relates it, is saying she's being candid. Here I was, a black woman working for a black organization, a white farmer comes along, I felt this and later I learned that was wrong, that's not the right way of seeing it.

How do the USDA and the White House explain her either dismissal or the request for her resignation?

Mr. O'KEEFE: Well, we know that Deputy Under Secretary Cheryl Cook, who deals with world development issues, is the one that called her on Monday and told Ms. Sherrod that she basically had to go. And as Ms. Sherrod tells it, she was told by Ms. Cook that one of the reasons she had to go was she was going to become a topic of conversation on Glenn Beck's Fox News program.

The White House, when asked, pushes back and says this was the Agriculture Department's decision. And remember that the department has faced now for several years accusations of racial discrimination from African-American, Hispanic, Native American and female farmers. So they're very sensitive to this issue. And they don't want it, it seems, to have any official out there suggesting that she is in one way or another swayed by the color of a farmer's skin.

SIEGEL: Ed O'Keefe, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. O'KEEFE: Any time.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post.

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