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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.