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After the Shirley Sherrod furor, a pivot on racial entitlement?

The US Department of Agriculture, from which Shirley Sherrod was fired for appearing to discriminate, stood at the forefront of institutional racism for decades. The question of whether America has righted historical wrongs against blacks ignites today's heated race debate.

By Staff writer / July 24, 2010

Shirley Sherrod answers questions during an interview at her home on Friday in Albany, Ga. President Obama has apologized to Sherrod, who was hastily fired from her job at the Agriculture Department following false charges of racism.

Steve Cannon/AP



Bubbling beneath the Shirley Sherrod furor is a debate that many Americans are itching to have, but aren't quite sure how to bring up in polite company: The fairness of minority preferences and entitlements.

That Ms. Sherrod, who is black, could be fired for making a racist statement – a false charge, as it turned out – seemed to many Americans to show a new willingness by the Obama administration to acknowledge that racism isn't just a problem for the white community. That it happened to an employee of the Department of Agriculture, which recently approved a $1.2 billion settlement for black farmers who faced decades of discrimination, only seemed to drive home that point.

While officials now say that Sherrod's forced resignation was too hasty – in fact, Obama apologized personally to Sherrod and she has been offered another job – the episode gave Americans an opportunity to discuss the substance of the point she was trying to make in the much-publicized March speech to an NAACP dinner in Douglas, Ga.: Whether race should still play a role in federal and state policy and politics.

As such, the Sherrod case embodies the race debate in both personal and institutional terms. It raises questions for many liberals about the state of racism on the political right and questions from many white Americans about when the post-Civil Rights era of minority preferences and entitlements will end.

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'No parallel in our history'

"The injustices endured by black Americans at the hands of their own government have no parallel in our history, not only during the period of slavery but also in the Jim Crow era that followed," writes Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia in the Wall Street Journal. "But the extrapolation of this logic to all 'people of color' – especially since 1965, when new immigration laws dramatically altered the demographic makeup of the U.S. – moved affirmative action away from remediation and toward discrimination, this time against whites. It has also lessened the focus on assisting African-Americans, who despite a veneer of successful people at the very top still experience high rates of poverty, drug abuse, incarceration and family breakup."

Few departments have struggled as much with how to resolve the legacy of institutional racism as the Department of Agriculture. That includes the man who fired Sherrod, Secretary Tom Vilsack, "who signaled a desire to atone for the USDA's checkered past, including pushing for funding of a historic $1.15 billion settlement that would help thousands of African American farmers but now faces bitter resistance from Senate Republicans," writes Chris Kromm on the Facing South blog.

"This is a good woman. She has been put through hell," Mr. Vilsack told CNN, acknowledging a shift in priorities. "I want to renew the commitment of this department to a new era in civil rights. I want to close the chapter on a very difficult period in civil rights."