The USDA’s Latest Shameful Chapter

By Reid Mukai, CAGJ Co-Chair

On July 19, right-wing ideologue Andrew Brietbart released a video of out-of-context snippets of a speech given by Shirley Sherrod, effectively distorting a personal story of empathy and redemption into an inflammatory account of reverse discrimination. Just hours after media began spreading the doctored evidence of racism, Sherrod (who served as Georgia State Director of Rural Development for just over a year), was forced to resign. Disappointingly, during the time she needed help the most, Sherrod received no support from anyone in a position of power. In fact the NAACP and Obama rapidly responded by publicly condemning her alleged comments. This incident follows a series of racially charged smear campaigns expedited by Brietbart and other conservative bullies (including Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh) against the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the Obama administration’s former Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Van Jones and Obama’s former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. To her credit, Sherrod didn’t leave without a fight and defended herself during the ordeal and through the aftermath.

To get a more accurate view of Sherrod’s character, one needs only to view the unedited version of her speech given on March, 27, 2010 for the NAACP 20th Annual Freedom Fund Banquet, which was also the 45th anniversary of her father’s murder by a white farmer in Baker County, Georgia. An all white jury let the murderer walk free, spurring Shirley, who at the time was 17 years old, to make a commitment to work for justice for black people. Later in life as head of a Georgia field office for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives*/Land Assistance Fund, a white farmer named Roger Spooner came to her for help when his farm was in danger of foreclosure, an experience which expanded her political worldview beyond race. In Sherrod’s own words, “it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t, you know, and they could be black, white, they could be Hispanic, and it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people, those who don’t have access the way others have. The only difference is the folks with money want to stay in power. It’s always about money, y’all”.

This brings to mind questions about why Sherrod was targeted, why conservative outrage over the phony allegations spread so rapidly, and why the White House did not defend her while they pandered to conservatives. It would be logical to conclude that right-wing mouthpieces like Brietbart are bigots based on their words and actions. They might be, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of other motives involved, similar to how politicians pretend to be pious or religious as a cynical ploy to win over the Christian voting bloc. While statistics indicate that blacks and other minorities are being hit the hardest by the recession especially in terms of unemployment and foreclosures, there’s growing numbers of white working-class families suffering equally but feeling ignored, fearful and frustrated (while often unaware of corporate-friendly economic and political policies at the root of many problems). If you’re a political party getting lots of money from big corporations, what better way to distract angry citizens from larger issues and mobilize them to vote against their own interests than to encourage scapegoating of immigrants and minorities? If you’re an “opposition” party also getting paid by big corporations but catering to a more liberal electorate, you might not endorse scapegoating, but you wouldn’t go out of your way to encourage racial justice and anti-oppression either, especially at the risk of alienating corporations you get most of your money from and being branded as “radical activists” by corporate media.

One of the sad ironies of the false accusations against Sherrod, and her immediate forced resignation, is that the USDA has a very real history of not just tolerating but committing acts of racism towards blacks and other minorities for generations, and not one employee has been fired for it. In 1965, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found civil rights abuses in their treatment of black farmers and employees. Reports in the 1980s and ’90s found that minority farmers were being driven out of business because of discriminatory practices such as being denied loans and getting only a fraction of the amount of subsidies white farmers received. As a result of a suit led by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in 1999, the department was forced to pay black farmers more than $1 billion for past discrimination. Sherrod and her husband, who ran a 6,000-acre farming cooperative in the 1970’s, were awarded $13 million to be shared among their cooperative in a settlement with the USDA last year. Incidentally, most black farmers still haven’t received restitution money because a spending bill that includes funding for the settlement has been continually stalled in the Senate. In case you were wondering who gets most of the USDA’s money, according to a 2009 study by the Environmental Working Group, the top 10 agribusiness farms received 74% of USDA subsidies.

In a just world, the person who should be fired as a result of this latest fiasco is Andrew Brietbart, the source of the tampered evidence and libelous accusations, but we shouldn’t overlook the poor judgement displayed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Vilsack’s under-secretary, Cheryl Cook called Sherrod repeatedly on July 19th, demanding her immediate resignation because the racism allegations were “going to be on Glenn Beck tonight”. On July 20th, Vilsack said that the controversy, regardless of the context of Sherrod’s comments, “compromises the director’s ability to do her job.” In other words, to Vilsack the truth doesn’t matter. He was willing to fire a lifelong advocate for civil rights and rural farmers and without due process, just because right-wing propagandists disliked her enough to slander her in the media. Many progressives previously viewed Vilsack with skepticism because of his ties to Monsanto and the GE crop industry, but his disgraceful handling of such an easily refuted attempt to defame a respected (former) employee is another reason to question his values and ability to make rational and ethical decisions.

*Ben Burkett, who CAGJ is inviting to Seattle to give the keynote at our annual dinner on August 7, is the President of this organization. He will also be participating in a workshop about the Farm Bill on August 8.

Sources used for this article include:

Posted in Food Justice Blog Posts.

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