Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack can make history of sort by doing what politicians and government officials routinely duck, dodge, or flatly refuse to do. He can admit that he was wrong, no conned, is the better word, and apologize and immediately reinstate Shirley Sherrod to her post as Agriculture Department’s director of rural development in Georgia.
In summarily accepting her resignation, (Sherrod says she was pressured to resign),Vilsack did the absolutely indefensible and unpardonable regarding a dedicated public servant, and that’s exactly what Sherrod is and has been for nearly three decades. He bought the phony, doctored, and politically self-serving hit tape of a speech that Sherrod gave to a local NAACP banquet back in March that purported to show her admitting to trashing a white farmer and then refusing to help him. The facts are now known. Sherrod was not employed at the Agriculture Department when the purported racial transgression happened. She went above and beyond the call of duty to help the farmer save his farm, and he corroborated that. She used the anecdote as a teachable moment to show that she had overcome her personal prejudices, and as an object lesson for others to do the same. Best or worst of all, the hit tape was trotted around by a well-known rightwing baiter, and blown up by on Fox News, and gleefully chatted up on the usual suspect rightwing attack blogs, websites, and the pack of talking head shock jocks.
This alone should have made anyone, let alone a top government official suspicious. And even if Sherrod did what she was alleged to have done, there’s still a little thing called due process which requires an investigation, diligent fact-finding, and corroboration, a careful weighing of the factual evidence, and then giving the accused a chance to present their case before making a decision about their fate. None of that happened. Sherrod was summarily kicked to the curb, her name drug through the media and public mud, and a sterling reputation as an official who did her job, and won consistent high praise from the legions of farmers of all races that she has aided during her years with the agency tainted.
The Sherrod debacle should be more than a teachable moment for a government official and a wronged employee. It is yet another object lesson of how organized, agenda driven, rightwing ideologues can bully, badger, intimidate and ultimately frighten government officials into violating all precepts of fairness, due process, and just good common sense, and rush to racial judgment about a black official.
Sherrod had a double misfortune. Not only was she targeted by conservatives for ouster. She was used by them as a pawn to hit back at the NAACP and civil rights organizations that have rightly put much heat to the GOP and tea party activists for their very real racism and perpetual race card play.
An apology and the immediate reinstatement of Sherrod won’t totally undo the damage that’s been done, but it will show that a public official can do the right thing by a wronged public servant. That in itself will mean something, certainly it will mean something to Shirley Sherrod.