A Department of Agriculture official who was forced to resign Monday over racially tinged comments accused the White House of pushing her out before they had fully understood her comments or even seen them in their full context, as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People withdrew their condemnation of the woman and called on the administration to reconsider her firing.
President Obama, however, on Tuesday evening stood by the decision to force out Shirley Sherrod, the USDA official in question, the White House told The Daily Caller.
White House officials told The Daily Caller that they were made aware late in the day Monday by USDA officials that comments by Sherrod, where she talked about discriminating against a white farmer seeking her help to a mostly black audience at an NAACP event in Georgia, had been posted online on a conservative website, BigGovernment.com (see the original shortened video and the full Sherrod speech at the bottom of this story).
President Obama himself was informed of the situation, a White House official said. But the official, speaking about the sensitive issue on the grounds that he not be identified, said that the administration put no pressure on Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to oust Sherrod, and that it was his decision alone.
Vilsack corraborated the story, saying “I made this decision. It’s my decision.”
“Nobody from the White House contacted me about this at all,” Vilsack told CNN.
Sherrod said that she was told differently by Cheryl Cook, the USDA official who called her four times late Monday, first informing her that she had been placed on administrative leave and finally asking Sherrod to pull her car over to the side of the road so she could e-mail in a statement of resignation.
“I had at least three calls telling me the White House wanted me to resign. And the last one asked me to pull over to the side of the road and do it. And that’s exactly what I did,” Sherrod said on CNN. “Each time she said it she said ‘the White House.’”
Sherrod went to the airwaves Tuesday to defend herself and her comments, arguing that in the video that appeared online she was telling a story about racial prejudice in which she had acted wrongly and learned from it, and that the incident in question had taken place in 1986. She was not working for the federal government at the time, she said. And on CNN, Sherrod said that people who had interpreted her comments to be racist were themselves racist.
“I know now that there are racist people out there who would take it to try to mean something else,” Sherrod said. “I grew up in racism and had to fight it all of my life. That’s why I fight so much against it. That’s why I know that racism is not something that’s a part of me.”
Sherrod also blasted the NAACP, blaming them for creating a racially charged national environment through their criticism of the Tea Party movement. The NAACP last week debated a resolution condemning the Tea Party movement as racist before approving a statement that called on the conservative movement to condemn racism within their midst.
“They are the reason why this happened. They got into a fight with the Tea Party and all of this came out as a result of that,” Sherrod said on CNN.
The NAACP, which did not talk to Sherrod before denouncing her on Monday, blamed their rush to judgment on Andrew Breitbart, the conservative firebrand who runs BigGovernment.com, and Fox News. The NAACP accused Breitbart of manipulating the video to distort Sherrod’s actions and words.
“We were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias,” said NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous. “Having reviewed the full tape, spoken to Ms. Sherrod, and most importantly heard the testimony of the white farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans.”
Breitbart,who also appeared on CNN, said the point of the video was not to show racism by Sherrod but by the people in the audience listening to her and approving discriminatory sentiments expressed by Sherrod before she said that they were wrong.
“When Shirley Sherrod is talking there, in which she expresses a discriminatory attitude towards white people, the audience responds with applause,” Breitbart said. “But what you see on the video are people in the audience at an organization whose sole job is to fight against discrimination and they’re applauding her overt racism that she is representing.”
There are two places in the video where members of the audience react audibly to Sherrod’s comments. At one point, as Sherrod is saying the white farmer seeking her help was trying to “show he was superior to me,” a woman in the audience says, “That’s right.”
The other reaction is widespread laughter from the audience when Sherrod says: “What he didn’t know, while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him.”
The audience appears to be silent for the rest of the video as Sherrod went on.
“I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farm land, 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,” she said.
Sherrod said the only reason she helped the man at all was because she knew that the federal or state department of agriculture had sent him to her and “he needed to go back and report that I had tried to help him.”
“So I took him to a white lawyer,” she said. “So I figured if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him.”
Sherrod then said it was “revealed” to her, though she did not explain how, that “it’s about the poor versus those who have.”
“It’s not so much about white — it is about white and black — but it’s not, you know,” she said, failing to finish the thought. “It opened my eyes, because I took him to one of his own.”
The full video was released by the NAACP late on Tuesday, and the 43-minute speech by Sherrod was indeed largely an exhortation to fellow blacks to eschew resentment or discrimination against others of different colors.
“We have to get to the point where, as Toni Morrison said, race exists but it doesn’t matter,” Sherrod said. “The change has to start with us. Somehow we’ve got to make the other side of town work with us.”
Sherrod began her speech by telling the story of her father’s death in 1965, which she said was a murder by a white man who went unpunished. She pivoted off that to tell the story featured in the Breitbart video that included her interaction with a white farmer. Portions of the video not available in the original version posted at BigGovernment.com showed Sherrod describing how she went on to help the man keep his farm.
Breitbart maintained that “this was not about Shirley Sherrod.”
“This was about the NAACP attacking the Tea Party and this is showing racism at an NAACP event. I did not ask for Shirley Sherrod to be fired. I did not ask for any repercussions for Shirley Sherrod. They were the ones that took the initiative to get rid of her,” he said.
However, the video posted on YouTube by Larry O’Connor, a contributor to BigGovernment.com, introduces Sherrod’s comments by saying in text on the screen: “Ms. Sherrod admits that in her federally appointed position, overseeing a billion dollars, she discriminates against people due to their race.”
Breitbart himself wrote in the post on BigGovernment.com that included the video: “In this piece you will see video evidence of racism coming from a federal appointee and NAACP award recipient.”
Breitbart said he had video of Sherrod’s full remarks but was “protecting” the person who sent him the video by not posting the entire video online.
“If I get the OK from the people who have the rights to the video to put it up on the Internet, I have no problem with it,” Breitbart said on CNN.
After Sherrod defended herself on Tuesday and numerous TV stations found the white farmer featured in Sherrod’s story, who said quite firmly that Sherrod had not discriminated against him but had in fact helped him save his farm, even the president’s most fierce critics said Sherrod should not have been fired.
“Shirley, I don’t think you should have been fired for this,” said Fox News’ Glenn Beck, whose show was mentioned by USDA officials to Sherrod, she said, as the forum that had most spooked the administration into forcing her to resign.
The NAACP also called on Vilsack in its statement Tuesday to reconsider his decision to oust Sherrod.
“While we understand why Secretary Vilsack believes this false controversy will impede her ability to function in the role, we urge him to reconsider and give everyday Americans a chance to surprise him.
Vilsack, however, stood by his decision and Obama stood behind him on it, the White House said.
Vilsack said on CNN that “the statements and the context of the statements created a circumstance where, in the future, if people were not satisfied with the decisions that the rural development director made, they could attribute the decision to a wide variety of reasons that weren’t necessarily related to the job.”
“I determined that it would make it difficult for her to do her job,” he said.
Here is the video excerpt posted on BigGovernment.com on Monday:
Here is the full 43-minute speech by Sherrod: