When the Secretary of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack, was Governor of Iowa, he supported making English the official language of the state. He was not adept at addressing issues of race with sensitivity and sophistication, and this inadequacy has reared its ugly head with regards to the remarks made by Ms. Shirley Sherrod, a staffer at the USDA whom Vilsack fired for alleged racism.
Sherrod was discussing an encounter she had with a white farmer twenty-five years ago and what she learned from that experience. A conservative leader of the Tea Party campaign edited the tape and put the corrupted one on YouTube for the world to see. It made it appear Sherrod was discussing a recent episode and making racist decisions from her position of power and authority.
It’s disappointing that Vilsack was not alone in his hasty dismissal without any effort to investigate the matter. Mr. Benjamin Jealous, head of the NAACP, who’s waged battles against the Tea Party movement, initially concurred with Vilsack and the Obama Administration’s demand for Sherrod’s resignation. However, Jealous eventually acquired the presence of mind to recant that support and encourage Vilsack to reconsider his ridiculous peremptory action. After some embarrassment and concomitant resistance, Vilsack indicated he would investigate the matter further.
This sort of acting before thinking, judging a book only by its cover or deciding without research is the type of anathema that has plagued politics forever. It appears President Obama took lessons from President Clinton, who could not deal circumspectly with the issue of gays in the military, the crackdown on crack cocaine, and the criticisms of his nominee for the Civil Rights Commission, Ms. Lani Guinier, and Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. Obama fired Val Jones for past comments that had nothing to do with his position fostering environmental justice and placed in administrative advisory posts a number of individuals with whom he theoretically disagrees because it makes him appear more moderate. This drive to accommodate to the opposition rather than work diligently to persuade to one’s own side ineluctably leads to overly compromising and to challenging one’s integrity. Like Clinton, Vilsack, Jealous, and Obama have ventured down that road and must do yeoman work for restoration and redemption.
Sherrod’s remarks will in no wise reduce her ability to perform her duties, unless we allow the shenanigans of Fox News and Andrew Breitbart of the Tea Party to infect us with their routine vitriol. The USDA can use in its rural development director position a person of the caliber of Sherrod, who recognized a problem she had nearly three decades ago and learned from that experience to teach others to be inclusive and anti-racist. In all of this, she is the true leader!