Click here to go to the Home Page Why Can’t U.S. Media Get a Grip on the Nation’s Racism? - Solidarity America - By John Funiciello - Columnist

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While it’s true that assessing America’s condition might be a function of one’s political perspective, there was a wire service story recently that cried out for some kind of explanation.

BC Question: What will it take to bring Obama home?It was an Associated Press story about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s offer to engage Shirley Sherrod’s non-profit organization to conduct outreach for USDA to minority farmers and others who have been discriminated against by the federal government.

Those who never heard of the case, or forgot who Sherrod is, she was employed by USDA in Georgia, as director of rural development. The discrimination in question was of long standing. Officially, it lasted over a few generations, but in reality, it continued through the (old) Jim Crow era, which lasted longer than the first half of the 20th Century. The new Jim Crow picked up where the old one left off, as described by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Sherrod was, and is, a case in point about the continuing problem of racism in America. If you recall, she was fired from her job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after a doctored tape of a speech she had made was released by a blogger, Andrew Breitbart, whose friends at Fox News were only too eager to show it time and again, without acknowledging that it was not true.

Breitbart knew what he was doing, since he had done it before, at least once. He released a doctored video in 2009, of workers in an ACORN office who were responding to one of Breitbart’s colleagues, James O’Keefe, who purported to show that ACORN staffers gave him advice on human trafficking and prostitution. One staffer reported the incident to his brother, a police officer, after O’Keefe left the office, but the staffer was fired and nothing happened to O’Keefe.

ACORN is a grass roots organization that was probably one of the most effective nationwide groups in registering low-income and minority Americans to vote, as well as in assisting communities in need on housing and education issues. The O’Keefe-Breitbart incident (inflated mightily by Fox News and other right-wing outlets) resulted in the defunding of ACORN by any government program, even though the organization was proven not to have done anything wrong.

That didn’t stop Breitbart then and it didn’t stop him from doing in Shirley Sherrod, even though he had to know that the video he released was doctored to show Sherrod was a reverse-racist, who had refused to help a white farmer save his farm. It mattered little that the white farmer and his wife explained that she had saved their farm.

When the news first broke, Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture, and President Barack Obama, on the basis of the fraudulent tape, said that she had to go. She was literally called, as she drove in her car on that day, to resign, which she did. Then, when Breitbart was shown to have pulled another of his racially tinged lies that again resulted in a national incident, the administration offered to return her to her job. She considered it, but ultimately decided not to and continued to work with a non-profit organization, The Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education.

By late last month, she was weighing yet another offer from the Obama Administration, having her Southwest Georgia Project do “outreach” on a contract basis for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The job would entail work that she and many others throughout the south have been doing for decades: assisting black farmers who have been discriminated against keep their farms and get the same loans and benefits that white farmers received as a matter of routine. Everyone is sorry about the treatment of Shirley Sherrod (except, of course, Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe) and officialdom wants to make amends.

For her, however, it has been an ordeal. Because of the treatment she suffered, she is suing Breitbart for defamation in a civil proceeding and that effort is ongoing and she continues her work defending small farmers. It is that work that was derailed by the likes of Breitbart and O’Keefe. Those who do not want equal treatment for black farmers or, for that matter, black Americans, have derailed similar civil rights work over generations.

That’s what the Pigford I and Pigford II law suits against USDA were all about: the structural discrimination and racism that existed in the agency’s county committees all across the southern states, wherever there were black farmers. Breitbart and others on the right complained that the proposed $50,000 individual settlement for farmers who were discriminated against was too much and they further charged that many of the plaintiffs in the class action suit were not deserving of the money.

Little did Breitbart know or care that the discrimination occurred over many years and the cumulative effects of the wrongs perpetrated were far more than $50,000. When a black farmer owed $200,000 or more, how would $50,000 save the farm? In many cases, it was a token payment, but it was an acknowledgement that USDA and its agents did real harm. And little did anyone care that there were more than 900,000 black farmers less than a hundred years ago in America and, by the time of the first class action suit, there were fewer than 18,000 of them still working on their farms.

Here’s one way the discrimination worked. A white farmer would go to the USDA’s county committee, which usually consisted of white men. He would receive his loan for seed, fertilizer, or a piece of machinery in a timely way. The black farmer, encountering the same county committee, would be told there was something wrong with his application. Too often, the white farmers’ crops would be knee-high when the black farmer got his loan, if he got the loan. In farming, everything depends on timing and a black farmer’s timing might depend on the calendar of the county committee. For this, and other reasons, black farms were lost by the thousands over the years.

Yet, right-wingers have continued to rail against the billion-dollar settlement, some declaring that it was the same as reparations. The struggle of black farmers to keep farming or, at least, to hold on to their land, also continues, despite the attacks by those who would continue to perpetuate the injustice.

The magnitude of the problem is illustrated in an Associated Press story in late May, when the AP gave Breitbart the last word in the story. They dutifully reported the USDA’s offer and Shirley Sherrod’s response, and explained what the case was about, but then gave him the opportunity to pose as the victim, as if he had not harmed Sherrod.

Even as they reported the falsehood the blogger had pushed into the news stratosphere, they gave him a platform that allowed him to try to hide under the cover of the First Amendment. The AP quoted him as rejecting “the transparent effort to chill his constitutionally protected free speech.” The First Amendment is not to be used as a cover for character assassination.

AP knows better. A quote from the “other side” is not necessary when it has been shown that the original Breitbart story was doctored. The “other side” in this case will be considered in a civil court and, upon a decision, Breitbart can have his say, if anyone cares to listen. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a labor organizer and former union organizer. His union work started when he became a local president of The Newspaper Guild in the early 1970s. He was a reporter for 14 years for newspapers in New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.

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June 2, 2011 - Issue 429
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BC Question: What will it take to bring Obama home?
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