Why are USDA officials off the hook in case of bias against black farmers?
As President Obama signs a taxpayer-funded settlement in case of bias against black farmers, some Americans ask: Why didn't any heads roll? Ex-USDA employee Shirley Sherrod is one.
Discriminating against black farmers turned out to be a giant mistake for the US Department of Agriculture, with taxpayers now on the hook for settling tens of thousands of claims to correct an injustice that led to the demise of thousands of black farms across the heartland. Yet the only USDA official even remotely involved in the so-called Pigford II settlement to ever get fired, or even punished, was Georgia rural director Shirley Sherrod, who is black.Skip to next paragraph
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Ms. Sherrod found herself at the center of racial firestorm in July, when a conservative commentator circulated a video in which Sherrod acknowledged her refusal to help a white farmer to the best of her ability. She was subsequently fired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and then invited back when the full, unedited context of her remarks became known. (She declined the offer.)
USDA's failure to punish those responsible for bias against black farmers has drawn criticism from an unlikely alliance that includes black farmers, conservatives such as Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, Sherrod herself, and, bizarrely, conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, who posted the video that got Sherrod fired.
"The government stands to pay out over $2 billion for discrimination against African Americans and not one person in the department has been fired because of that, yet the first African American woman to [oversee rural development] in Georgia was fired for alleged racism," Jerry Pennick, director of the Federation of the Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, told the Washington Post in July. "And nobody has been fired for proven discrimination."
Asked about that last month, Secretary Vilsack approached carefully the question of why USDA officials whom the government now acknowledges discriminated against black farmers are still on the job. As part of the settlement, which President Obama signed into law Wednesday, the USDA admitted no guilt or wrongdoing.