Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tom Vilsack, Shirley Sherrod, and the Nuances of Racial Discrimination

Politico has a fascinating story about Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and his involvement in the Shirley Sherrod fiasco. "On July 19, Vilsack was hurrying to address a meeting with a group of constituents of an Ohio congressman. As he was about to enter the room, an aide stopped him and held up a BlackBerry with a few sentences from a speech by Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia state director for rural development at the USDA. In the excerpts, Sherrod, who is black, seemed to indicate she had denied help to a white farmer because of his race." Vilsack, a man who is known for quick decisionmaking, and who is keenly aware of the fact that the Department of Agriculture "discriminated against minorities and women for decades and [is] now being involved in multibillion-dollar settlements and lawsuits," put Sherrod on administrative leave.

Interesting. Although I applaud Vilsack's work to move Agriculture away from it's ugly history of racial discrimination, it's interesting that he chose to fire a black woman who seemingly discriminated against a white man. After decades of his department's letting white people oppress blacks, he instantly punished a black woman who appeared to "oppress" a white family. (Whether it is even possible for a minority to oppress a white person is a whole other post, but we'll leave that for a later time.)

It is possible that Vilsack's personal life makes him extra-sensitive to harm done to farm families like the one in Sherrod's story. Vilsack's grandfather was a member of "a farm family with seven sons, six of whom had grown up to become doctors or lawyers. But the seventh son became a farmer and got too deeply in debt during the farm crisis of the 1980s, and one day he walked into his barn and hanged himself from a rafter. He was in his late 20s, and his young son found him there." I can only imagine how finding his father's body affected Vilsack and influenced his clear passion for helping farmers.

Although I think this entire story was an appalling error, Vilsack has offered to resign and took full responsibility for his mistake before the president. He seems incredibly devoted to improving the Department of Agriculture and pushing out of its unpleasant, racially charged past into a better future. Although he clearly made a serious error with Shirley Sherrod, I think it was with only good intentions. I hope he will use this experience to become more aware of the nuances of race both in his department and in our country, so that there won't be another Shirley Sherrod. And I hope she can move on and have a long, successful career in whatever area she chooses.

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