Shirley Sherrod Re-revisited

The Sherrod episode is appalling from all sorts of angles. First, there’s the kneejerk reaction of the administration to demand her resignation — by her account, she was asked to pull over to the side of the road to resign by cellphone by a USDA official, who claimed pressure from the White House. This shows a despicable lack of respect for due process: Surely Sherrod was entitled to at least defend herself — to produce the full text of her remarks in order to show her broader point.

Second, as I understand it, her remarks related to her conduct as a non-governmental official more than 20 years ago. She did not claim to have denied government benefits on the basis of race, which would have been a violation of the applicant’s constitutional rights, but rather recounted a story of her time in, as I understand it, a non-profit organization. And it turns out that her story was merely a description of how she came to have more enlightened views on issues of race and poverty. If the government is going to fire everyone who has held conflicted views on race at some point in their lives — unconnected from government service — then we can thin the ranks of government employees relatively quickly. It is not surprising that a black woman growing up in the deep South might harbor some suspicions of her white brethren; it is reassuring that Sherrod was able to overcome those preconceptions, and it is refreshing that she could admit to having had them — an honest admission that certainly doesn’t cast her in the most flattering light, until you listen to her whole story.

Finally, the conservative media has some ’splaining to do. It is dangerous to run with a story based on a snippet — and our colleagues on the right have as much of an obligation to investigate before rolling out an expose on someone (especially someone as obscure as Sherrod) as do those on the left (e.g., Dan Rather). Sherrod was a low-level bureaucrat, apparently appointed to the position of Georgia director of rural development by Tom Vilsack; it is a stretch to attribute the views of such a low-ranking functionary to President Obama.

An accusation of racism is serious business, one which neither white nor black should throw around willy-nilly. (I’ll note that Sherrod herself has been willing to use those accusations to her benefit in the past. According to this website, she was at least indirectly part of the plaintiff class of black farmers in the Pigford litigation, which dealt with claims of racial discrimination against black farmers. She personally received $150,000 in a settlement for her pain and suffering associated with denial of loans.) But in this particular episode, it would appear that Sherrod is owed an apology.

Shannen W. Coffin — Shannen W. Coffin is a contributing editor to National Review. He previously served in senior legal positions in the Justice Department and Office of Vice President during the George ...