Politics & Government

Obama administration apologizes for firing Shirley Sherrod

USDA official Shirley Sherrod in an undated photo from the Department of Agriculture.
USDA official Shirley Sherrod in an undated photo from the Department of Agriculture. United States Department of Agriculture / AP

WASHINGTON — Despite his hopes of ushering in a new post-racial era for the country, President Barack Obama's administration is struggling to recover from a self-inflicted wound that threatens once again to cloak the White House in the politics of race.

This time, his administration was forced to apologize Wednesday to a black woman it had fired the day before after hastily accepting a smear from a conservative website that used selectively edited video to accuse her of racism against a white farmer.

Apparently fearing conservative attacks that it was anti-white, the administration of the nation's first black president rushed to dismiss her without asking to see the rest of the video or waiting to learn other facts about her.

The embarrassing mishandling of the case is the second time that Obama has been caught up in a high-profile, race-related brouhaha since he took office.

Last July, he said that Sgt. James Crowley, a white police officer in Cambridge, Mass., had acted "stupidly" when he arrested African-American college professor Henry Louis Gates inside Gates' own home.

Under fire for talking without knowing all the facts, Obama later retreated from the characterization and invited both men to the White House for a "beer summit."

In the new case, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs apologized to Shirley Sherrod, who was forced to resign as the Agriculture Department's director of rural development in Georgia.

"A disservice was done, for which we apologize," he said.

"I accept the apology," Sherrod said on CNN.

Gibbs didn't say whether Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would offer to rehire Sherrod and she didn't say whether she'd accept.

Sherrod said earlier that the Agriculture Department pressured her to resign because her story was going to appear on the show of Fox News anchor Glenn Beck. Beck has said that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."

Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart started the story Monday with a video posted on his blog that accused Sherrod of being a government-sanctioned racist whom the NAACP applauded.

"While speaking at the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet," the video says, "Ms. Sherrod admits that in her federally appointed position overseeing over a billion dollars, she discriminates against people due to their race."

The video clip shows her saying she didn't want to help a white farmer fight off foreclosure, that she did only the bare minimum necessary and that she handed off his case to a white lawyer.

Based on the clip, the NAACP denounced her and she was forced out.

The NAACP later said, however, that Breitbart and Fox News had "snookered" it. The group posted the full video of Sherrod's remarks.

In it, she says the case happened more than two decades ago, when she was a volunteer, not a government employee. She says she later took the farm couple's case to another lawyer, one she'd used for black clients. She also says more than once that she learned from the case that her work should be about helping all poor people and shouldn't be based on race.

"God will show you things. He'll put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people," she says at one point.

"Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't," she says to approving comments from the NAACP audience. "They could be black; they could be white; they could be Hispanic. It made me realize that I needed to work to help poor people, those who don't have access the way others have."

Also, the white farmer and his wife said Sherrod had saved their farm and that Breitbart's accusation of racism was false.

"A bunch of hogwash," Roger Spooner told CNN. "She was just as nice to us as anyone could have been. And, as far as racism and all ... it's just ridiculous."

Vilsack said Wednesday afternoon that he'd decided to fire Sherrod on his own, without pressure from the White House. He said he'd acted after reading a transcript of the video clip, and hadn't seen the full video. When she was being fired, Sherrod says, she was told that the White House wanted her out.

Gibbs added that Obama was briefed on the case Tuesday morning before Sherrod was forced out and again Wednesday.

"I think, clearly, that a lot of people involved in this situation, from the government's perspective on through, acted without all the facts," Gibbs said.

He said the news media shared the blame, for spreading the story and for pressing the White House to react.

"Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this have all made determinations and judgments without a full set of facts," Gibbs said.

"We live in a culture that things rip around. People want fast responses; we want to give fast responses. And I don't think there's any doubt that, if we all look at this, I think the lesson — one of the great lessons you take away from this is — is to ask all the questions first and to come to that fuller understanding."

After the meeting over beer last year at the White House, Obama called Crowley an "outstanding police officer and a good man."

The president also acknowledged that his own words had helped escalate racial tension.

"This has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up," Obama said.

"I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department and Sergeant Crowley specifically. And I could've calibrated those words differently."


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