Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shirley Sherrod, the USDA and "Accountability"

The outrageous and unconscionable USDA firing of Mrs. Shirley Sherrod over an ill intended blog/video filled to the moon and back with crude falsehoods inspires this post. The facts are well known thanks to news anchor Rick Sanchez and to the much admired grace of Mrs. Sherrod who convinced us with unmitigated restraint the slander and defamation of her good name.
Since the real facts have surfaced, U.S. Agric. Secretary Vilsack has done the honorable "thing," and apologized for his hasty and ill-informed discharge of an individual who has given the nation so much. In essence, Mrs. Sherrod may end up returning to the USDA and hopefully further remedies are forthcoming. The circumstances leading to her firing however cannot end there and allows us to turn our lens on USDA animosity and its discriminatory tactics against people of color who farm. In short, her discharge has thrown additional fuel into the agency's tainted history.

Farming is labor intensive and is vulnerable to the whims of the market, the environment and other unknown externalities. Congress through farm bills and other massive legislation has deemed agriculture important to the nation providing emergency and other funds to small owner operators. The USDA moreover facilitates congressional mandates in protecting small owner operators as well as others. The agency's disparate practices of people of color however have left an enduring legacy into the present. Even more fundamentally the USDA has escaped accountability in their actions where farmers of color lost their farms and suffered other injuries from the agency's harsh treatment. Against this backdrop it is difficult to reconcile the lack of remedial relief for parties injured by the USDA with the rapid firing of Mrs. Sherrod.

Land is tied culturally to our communities and in numerous circumstances ensured the survival of communities of color. Yet the record encompassing the legislative, historical and over all atmosphere of hostile treatment of people of color is solid. In case after case many independent owner operators lost their farming operations to USDA linked practices. The evidence is seen in the litigation over the disparate loan practices that denied African Americans, Native Americans, and female farmers emergency funds to keep their farms afloat. In instances where loans were granted they would arrive late and preclude the purchase or planting of seeds ensuring no future income for owner operators. Yet into the present, the lawsuits chasing remedial relief over the loss of family farms remain languishing in federal courts or lost in vague procedural posturing.

Although Mrs. Sherrod is owed one million apologies for her ill treatment, she is receiving (thank goodness) a small measure of remedial relief. By the way thank you Mrs. Sherrod for all you have sacrificed in promoting civil rights. Against this backdrop a reminder that the present lack of accountability over farm losses against people of color continues to taint the agency with the Ag. Secretary providing fuel to this issue. Specifically in a statement following his conversation with Mrs. Sherrod, he asserted: ". . . I also want to renew my firm commitment to put behind all of us the USDA's past record on civil rights. While we have made some progress over the last 18 months, more work is needed." Yes, Sec. Vilsack more work is needed.

The firing of such an honorable individual at breakneck and breathless speed comparable to the lack of accountability in the loss of small farming operations, renders it extremely curious why people of color at the USDA are held to a different standard than those that perpetuated such massive harm on the farmers seeking remedies over the loss of their farms.

If and only if the Secretary's assertion of addressing discrimination is to mean anything--as well as his apology to Shirley Sherrod-- lets insist on nothing less than at the very minimum promoting accountability within the agency directly.

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