US agriculture director resigns over race comments

The Obama administration has defended its decision to force out a black Agriculture Department employee over racially-tinged remarks at a banquet, despite evidence that they were misconstrued.

Shirley Sherrod, the department’s director of rural development in Georgia, said the administration had caved in to political pressure, forcing her to resign after she said she did not give a white farmer as much help as she could have 24 years ago, when she worked for a non-profit group.

A White House official said President Barack Obama was briefed on the matter after Ms Sherrod’s resignation and stood by the Agriculture Department’s handling of it.

Ms Sherrod said her remarks, delivered in March at a local National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People banquet in Georgia, were part of a story about racial reconciliation, not racism.

And the white farming family referred to in the story stood by Ms Sherrod and said she should keep her job.

“We probably wouldn’t have (our farm) today if it hadn’t been for her leading us in the right direction,” said Eloise Spooner, wife of farmer Roger Spooner of Iron City, Georgia.

“I wish she could get her job back because she was good to us, I tell you. She’s always been nice and polite and considerate. She was just a good person. She did everything she could trying to help.”

The controversy began when conservative website biggovernment.com posted a two-minute, 38-second video clip in which Ms Sherrod describes the first time a white farmer came to her for help. It was 1986 and she worked for a non-profit rural farm aid group.

She said the farmer came in acting “superior” to her and that she debated how much help to give him.

“I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land,” Ms Sherrod said.

Initially, she said: “I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do” and only gave him enough help to keep his case progressing.

Eventually, she said, his situation “opened my eyes” that whites were struggling just like blacks, and helping farmers wasn’t so much about race but was “about the poor versus those who have”.

Ms Sherrod said yesterday the incomplete video appeared to intentionally twist her message. She said she became close friends with the farmer and helped him for two years.

The NAACP, which initially condemned Ms Sherrod’s remarks and supported her resignation, has now joined the calls for her to keep her job.

The leading civil rights group said it and millions of others were duped by the website.

“We have come to the conclusion we were snookered ... into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias,” said NAACP president Benjamin Jealous.

Biggovernment.com posted the Sherrod video as evidence that the NAACP, which recently passed a resolution condemning what it calls racist elements of the Tea Party, condones racism of its own.

Ms Sherrod said she was on the road on Monday when USDA deputy undersecretary Cheryl Cook called her and told her the White House wanted her to resign because her comments were generating a cable news controversy.

“They called me twice,” she said. “The last time they asked me to pull over to the side of the road and submit my resignation on my BlackBerry, and that’s what I did. I’m not a racist ... Anyone who knows me knows that I’m for fairness.”

But the administration gave a different version of events.

Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack – not the White House – made the decision to ask Ms Sherrod to resign, said USDA spokeswoman Chris Mather. She said Ms Sherrod willingly resigned when asked.

In a statement, Mr Vilsack said the controversy surrounding Ms Sherrod’s comments could, rightly or wrongly, cause people to question her decisions as a government employee and lead to lingering doubts about civil rights at the agency, which has a troubled history of discrimination.

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