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Shirley Sherrod: Racism and the rush to judgment

Another day, another racism clash between the left and right. This time, it involves an African-American USDA employee who was pushed to resign after a video clip was posted to a conservative Web site that seemed to indict her of discrimination against a white farmer.

But there's more than political fights to examine here. Vilsack's hasty decision to push for Sherrod's resignation, which he is now re-examining, is a reminder of the often overwhelming temptation for leaders to rush to judgment.

As with seemingly all political controversies these days, the Sherrod scandal erupted with a force and ubiquity that only the blogosphere, fueled by the cable media fires, can provide. For those too distracted by Lindsay Lohan's jail time to follow this latest political meme, it went down something like this.

On Monday, Andrew Breitbart posted a clip showing a video of Sherrod, then the rural development officer for the USDA in Georgia, speaking at an N.A.A.C.P. banquet. In recounting an incident that occurred 24 years ago, when she was working for a nonprofit organization, Sherrod recalled that "I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So I didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough."

As the video ricocheted around the web, the NAACP condemned her comments, and Vilsack asked for her resignation. He told CNN that he made the decision in part due to a desire to close the books on a troubled history of civil rights issues at the USDA he had vowed to end.

"When I saw the statements and the context of the statements," Vilsack said, "I determined that it would make it difficult for her to do her job as a rural development director, and it would potentially compromise our capacity to close the chapter on civil rights cases."

But when a full video of the banquet speech surfaced on Tuesday, Sherrod's story about the white farmer sounded a little different. After he had trouble getting help, she said, she recognized that "it's really about those who have versus those who have not. They could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. It made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people." In other words, her story illustrated how she overcame her prejudices.

Sure, Sherrod should have been more careful about her delivery, and more forceful in repudiating her old feelings. And perhaps the history of civil rights troubles at the USDA have been so toxic that, with careful examination, even admissions of biases held decades ago would be grounds for further public explanation.

But there's the rub: There appears to have been little careful examination. In her telling, she was pushed to resign immediately--so immediate, she says, that she was told to pull off to the side of the road and do it because the story was going to be on Glenn Beck that evening. (Sherrod also says the White House was involved in her dismissal; Vilsack has said it wasn't.)

If what she says is true, it's an extraordinary rush to judgment that could tarnish not only the reputation of Vilsack's leadership, but also of the NAACP, which was also quick to condemn Sherrod before later admitting it was "snookered."

We pay our leaders to think clearly. To examine all the facts before they make decisions. To act quickly and decisively, but not so much that fairness goes out the window. In the Sherrod affair, Vilsack--and the NAACP--should have issued statements that they were investigating the matter, and only made a decision after gathering all information possible and considering the full weight of the issues. Instead, the review is coming now, when it may be too late.

By Jena McGregor

 |  July 21, 2010; 10:15 AM ET |  Category:  Crisis leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Charles Sherrod and Shirley Sherrod have spent years standing with and helping the poor, the downtrodden, those left out, pushed out, and kept out.
They have risked lives, fortunes and sacred honor for others with class and humor. They've lifted voices in song, and bowed heads in prayer, not for themselves — but for others. They don't need a telephoned message of regret.
Instead, how about medals of freedom, dinner at the White House, and a presidential trip through Southwest Georgia with Shirley as tour guide?

Posted by: john_chappell | July 22, 2010 3:59 PM

I think in all the brouhaha about the White House's rush to react to this non-story, the real issue is being ignored: the right wing's deliberate misinformation campaign to oust political opponents.

This is not run-of-the-mill muckraking. They are taking things entirely out of context, and nobody seems to have a problem with it. How many innocent people are going to get fired before the mainstream media catches on to Breitbart and Fox's little scheme?

Posted by: JodyP | July 22, 2010 3:00 PM

Let's all breathe for a moment and put aside the partisan diatribes. This incident is only one of many which demonstrate a serious problem with both our political and media systems - which should be of concern whatever your individual politics may be.

In this age of 24/7 media outlets and instantaneous transmission technology, the perceived need to be quick has obliterated serious thought, rational consideration, and concern for accuracy. In older and wiser days, both media outlets and political figures took the time to research, verify, and discuss before speaking (or writing). Now they are in such a perceived hurry to react that no one truly thinks before he speaks. And both our national discourse and our body politic are far the worse for that.

Posted by: nan_lynn | July 22, 2010 12:21 PM

Throw Fox out of the White House press pool. It's been 24/7 coverage of SCARY BLACK PEOPLE for the last year. You notice Bin Laden doesn't even get covered any more?

Most of their stories (ACORN, Clinategate, NBP) are hoaxes.

Fox News is a lynch mob, leveling false charges against blacks and inciting the mob of illiterate crackers.

Posted by: BurfordHolly | July 22, 2010 11:07 AM

Right on Tomfromnj. Well said. I think we should pressure our cable TV providers (mine is Cablevision) to remove Fox from the basic package. I am offended that any part of my subscriber fee goes to Fox. Fox should be a stand alone channel that people can choose to receive and have the option not to fund.

Posted by: DaveNJ1 | July 22, 2010 6:58 AM

Sounds to me like Vilsack is a political coward who acted without full possession of the facts. I think he should be replaced with someone like Shirley Sherrod, if not the lady herself...

Posted by: Tambopaxi | July 22, 2010 6:52 AM

The moral of this story is simple: if Breitbart, Fox or a Republican politician tells you a story, assume it's a lie until proven otherwise.

Posted by: roblimo | July 22, 2010 6:15 AM

While I agree that Vilsack should not have rushed to judgement (and I admire him for being a politician who actually admitted a mistake and took responsibility), I cannot believe how this has become the story and not the total lack of journalistic integrety of Fox News which not only lashed out demanding her resignation on at least 3 shows that I watched Mon. night, but then had the audacity to come on criticizing the administration without any admission of their own role of putting something on the air without seeing the whole context (O'Reilly did admit that he did not do his homework but he was the very guy who criticized Bob Schieffer just the day before for not having his staff research and get things right).

They are allowed to advertise as being "fair and balanced" when in fact they are nothing of the sort. They are 24-7 propaganda machine. They first found fault with the administration for not demanding her resignation and then for doing so. They have one aim -- to put down the Obama presidency without any regard for either the country or the ordinary people. I had long wondered how people like Hitler and Fr. Coughlin got their start and big followings and had thought we were too bright and educated for that now. Clearly, we have a lot of people who will blindly follow no matter what they say. Not unlike the proverbial lemmings.

They did the same thing with ACORN by showing some tapes out of context and, while some people did something wrong, they never showed the people who threw the imposters out. And then they (successfully) tarred a whole organization because some people did some wrong things. That, I submit, is the essence of racism -- to smear a whole for the actions of a small part. But it shows how weak their arguments are that they resort to name calling and these tactics. There should be a way to revoke the licenses of such irresposible broadcasters. They should be free to expess their opinions, but not to distort facts

Posted by: TomfromNJ1 | July 22, 2010 4:28 AM

Not only has FOX News demonstrated, yet again, that they are a sham news outlet. I'll go further to say that I don't believe for one second Democrats are in any kind of trouble in November. Right wing crackpots are relatively few in number compared to the intelligent, open-minded decent people in this country.

Posted by: jeffersontao | July 22, 2010 3:32 AM


Of course the WaPo gave Fox News and Breitbart a "Pass". I have yet to read one article that holds them accountable for anything.
But then again the WaPo did apologize to Fox for NOT carrying their NBPP story "immediately". I'm going to stop reading this "rag". Until they begin to report "Fair and Balanced" News and stop "falling" all over the Fox narrative.

Posted by: yvonneweston | July 22, 2010 3:17 AM

Tom Vilsack needs to resign. We do not need a HIP-SHOOTER that rushes to judgement with out getting the facts.

Posted by: roguecowboy | July 22, 2010 2:28 AM

This is a very common managerial failing. Sometimes the best revenge is when it bites the people engaging in it. Usually in corporations they don't have the opportunity, or interest, in undoing their own stupidity. So they try to cover up for it instead. That ends up being costly & can generate serious failure. Having been on the receiving end of unjust blame before, I can safely say the best revenge is letting others wallow in their own idiocy.

These political types were lucky they have had an opportunity to confront their own mistakes, and the sense to step up and admit them. I can't think of any other course that would not have generated more failure on their part.

This has left that Breitbart dude with zero credibility.

Posted by: Nymous | July 22, 2010 2:15 AM

May I respectfully ask how this particular incident becomes President Obama's fault, as stated by an earlier comment. The moon is full tonight, is that President Obama;s fault? Have some become so one dimensional
that every single incident is the President's fault? An error was made, the truth was discovered, an apology with a better job offer was made and hopefully accepted, all appears to be well and mended is the President Obama;s fault also? Hello Houston, we have a problem.

Posted by: normacelestine | July 22, 2010 1:44 AM

Breibart is not to blame.

The entire blame goes to Barack Obama and the culture of corruption that he has spawned. His regime is little more than a shaky deck of cards that is dependent on continual favorable media coverage. Had Shirley Sherrod been the bigot that she was portrayed to be, Obama and company would have been heroes. But now that it has been revealed that Obama once again jumped the gun without any investigation, he looks quite convincingly like the schmuck he is.

Posted by: mike85 | July 22, 2010 1:31 AM

You don't look old enbough to be weighing in on civil rights issues. Judging from your uninformed comments, you don't have much experience understanding the plight of African-Americans. Ms. Sherrod's father was killed by white men. She grew up in the segregated south where blacks couldn't look whites in the eye for fear of physical harm. I have been in her position working for Harold Washington. I had to go into a bunch of ethnic communities and deal with white superiority attitudes while I'm there to help them. I felt the same way she did. Don't you understand the irony a Black person feels in that situation. She told the story the way she should have done it. It is what makes her speech compelling. You are also off base trying to determine how forceful she should have repudiated her thoughts. She justifiably had those feelings and doesn't need to apologize.

what you should be writing about is the need for the Justice Dept. to launch a civil rights investigation into Mr. Breitbart's actions. As a federal employee,
doesn't she have protections under the law?

Posted by: jpose | July 22, 2010 12:57 AM

Trakker: good point. Is this writer a Fox News Analyst? Where did WaPo find her from?

Posted by: RB13 | July 22, 2010 12:24 AM

Jena: "...Sherrod's story about the white farmer sounded a little different."

A LITTLE different? Instead of telling the audience that she held back helping a white farmer because of his race, which was the message the right wing blogger was conveying, we found that Sherrod was, in fact preaching just the opposite. Her father was killed by white racists - she surely had reason not to want to help whites, but she told the audience that this white farmer helped her overcome her reluctance to help whites in need and she clearly wanted them to do the same.

This was not an innocent mistake on blogger Breitbart's part, he deliberately showed a willingness to destroy this woman's career in an effort to embarrass the NAACP, and Fox News quickly jumped on the story, and Bill O'Reilly even demanded that she resign! Don't you think that is worth noting? You don't think this was the reason the administration moved quickly: to prevent a week-long orgy of Sherrod-bashing while they investigated? By the time the truth was discovered the damage would have been complete, and Fox would have moved on to the next liberal "outrage.". Shouldn't that be part of the story?

Posted by: Trakker | July 21, 2010 6:12 PM

BreitFart can spare us his apologies - he should make them after paying the costs of the lawsuit she should bring against his flabby butt - throw Faux News in as well...

Posted by: LABC | July 21, 2010 4:56 PM

Aftermath: Andrew Breibart Now Says that He's Sorry to Shirley Sherrod, After The Entire Un-Edited Video is Released and The Public Backlash ...

That's just like a Rapist Telling his Interrogating Detectives after Raping a Woman....

"I'm Truly Sorry, I Did It, I Didn't Know, I was Raping A Good Woman"

Posted by: omaarsblade | July 21, 2010 2:49 PM

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