Firing at the USDA

Shirley Sherrod was fired (“forced to resign”) from her position as head or Rural Development for the state of Georgia due to a video clip in which she described to an NAACP audience how she had not given her full effort to help a white man (because he was white) 25 years ago when he was near losing his family farm.  This video clip started on a blogger site, then was picked up by Fox News, and suddenly Ms. Sherrod was forced to resign.  It now appears she will be rehired, and likely promoted, and perhaps also significantly compensated.

This incident is very instructive and its lessons run far deeper than the media will ever cover.

I saw this video excerpt yesterday morning on Fox News and my immediate reaction was outrage, followed within seconds by my more reasoned reaction which was, “show me the context”.  I use this philosophy with quotes from politicians, with police-beating video clips, and news headlines.  We must always try to understand things that outrage us in their context, and far too rarely do we do this– often ruining careers, reputations, and often lives.  We are drawn to the simple, abbreviated, often biased portions of a controversy.

Obviously the blogger, Fox News, and the Obama Administration did not take that approach.  They quickly canned this woman who, in the end, was making what was for the most part a very inspirational speech.  Her early life history is a moving set of very difficult experiences.  In summary I had several issues with the speech, but it was a speech which also had important messages for the audience she was speaking with, and for all Americans.

The speech is worth reading.  It can be found at this link:

Here are some excerpts for you along with my comments, in the order in which they appeared in her speech:

1.  Inspiring young black Americans in the audience to apply for jobs at the USDA, pointing to the almost certain job security working at taxpayer expense, she said the following.  For all of us in the private sector who pay taxes, how does this one make you feel?

“And you’ve heard of a lot of layoffs. Have you heard of anybody in the federal government losing their job? That’s all that I need to say, okay?”

2.  The next excerpt was a common theme in her speech, one which I find deeply troubling as it is a rampant point of view often espoused by our President himself, about how “rich” people essentially get rich by exploiting “poor” people.  Multiple times in the speech she says the “rich vs. the poor” or equivalent.  Keep in mind this is a government official saying this:

“There is no difference between us. The only difference is that the folks with money want to stay in power and whether it’s health care or whatever it is, they’ll do what they need to do to keep that power, you know. It’s always about money, y’all.”

3.  Republicans and President Bush are racists in general, and racists for opposing the health care bill:

“You know, I haven’t seen such a mean-spirited people as I’ve seen lately over this issue of health care. Some of the racism we thought was buried. Didn’t it surface? Now, we endured eight years of the Bush’s and we didn’t do the stuff these Republicans are doing because you have a black President.  I wanted to give you that little history — especially the young people.”

4.  Now some examples of motivational aspects of her speech:

“We’ve got to make our communities what they need to be and our young people, I’m not picking on you, but you got to, but y’all got to…step up to the plate. You’ve got to step up to the plate. You are capable of being very, very smart people. You are capable of being those doctors and lawyers. You’re capable of running your own business.”

5.  So if you are a non-black interviewing for a position at the USDA Department of Rural Development with Ms. Sherrod, and there is a black candidate competing against you, what do you think your odds of being hired are?  Reverse discrimination for sure.  Notice, by the way, how she refers to blacks as “us”.  Throughout the speech she says “us”, and “we” referring to blacks, and “them” referring to whites:

“In Rural Development, there are 129 employees and guess how many of them are people of color? Anybody want to take a guess? That’s in Georgia. I got — there are 129 in my agency. How many? It’s more than two. Little more than 12. There are less than 20 of us. We have six area offices in the State and subarea offices offices and when I look at who’s coming up the line in the agencies — in the agency, there are not many of us.”

7.  And she ends with more inspiration.

“Okay, I won’t keep going on tonight, but just let me say there is a saying: ‘Life is a grindstone; but…whether it grinds us down or polishes us up depends on us’.”

In conclusion, definitely do not fire this woman.  But do not build a shrine in her honor either.

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