WASHINGTON — The Obama administration faced a blast of criticism on Wednesday over its ouster of a black Agriculture Department employee for her remarks about race. The woman says she's not sure she would go back to her job now, even if asked.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that he would reconsider the department's decision to ask Shirley Sherrod to resign. Sherrod, the director of rural development in Georgia, was asked by department officials to leave her job on Monday after conservative bloggers posted an edited video of her saying that she initially didn't give a white farmer as much help as she could have 24 years ago, when she was working for a nonprofit farm aid group.
Sherrod says the video distorted her full speech, which described how she came to realize the white farmer needed her help and which she says was intended to promote racial reconciliation.
Sherrod says she submitted her resignation under pressure from the White House; the USDA said seeking the resignation was Vilsack's decision alone.
Vilsack decided to reconsider after speaking with the White House Tuesday evening, according to an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the call. It was agreed on the call that Sherrod's ouster should be reviewed based on new evidence.
The official said President Barack Obama supports USDA's decision to reconsider but that he hasn't spoken with Sherrod about the controversy. The president is being kept informed of the developments in her case, said the official, who was not authorized to talk publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
But in nationally broadcast interviews Wednesday, Sherrod said she doesn't know if she'd return to her job, even if asked, because she's unsure how she would be treated.
The incident is a stumble for the Obama administration and for the NAACP. Both reversed their positions after condemning Sherrod based on the video first released Monday night. It is the latest in a series of race-related brouhahas to garner national attention since Obama became the nation's first black chief executive.
A year ago, Obama convened a "beer summit" at the White House between a black Harvard scholar and the white police sergeant who arrested him after a confrontation at the black man's home. The president also faced criticism over nominating to the Supreme Court judge Sonia Sotomayor, who had once remarked on the virtues of having a "wise Latina" on the bench. And there are complaints about the Justice Department's handling of allegations that New Black Panther Party members threatened voters at a Philadelphia polling place on the day Obama was elected.
Black leaders piled on Wednesday in criticizing Sherrod's ouster. The Rev. Jesse Jackson called on the administration to apologize and give Sherrod her job back, if she wants it. The Congressional Black Caucus, an influential bloc that represents 42 members of Congress, called for Sherrod to be reinstated immediately, saying Vilsack overreacted.
Soon after, the Rev. Al Sharpton said black leaders should refrain from calling for an apology from the Obama administration, saying that creates the impression that black leadership is fractured. "We are only greasing the rails for the right wing to run a train through our ambitions and goals for having civil and human rights in this country," Sharpton said.
The episode comes as the NAACP and the conservative tea party movement have been trading charges of racism.
The two-minute, 38-second clip posted Monday by BigGovernment.com was presented as evidence that the NAACP was hypocritical in its recent resolution condemning what it calls racist elements of the tea party movement. The website's owner, Andrew Breitbart, said the video shows the civil rights group condoning the same kind of racism it says it wants to erase. Biggovernment.com is the same outfit that gained fame last year after airing video of workers at the community group ACORN counseling actors posing as a prostitute and her boyfriend.
Reacting to the video on Monday, the USDA asked Sherrod to resign and the NAACP sent out a statement disavowing her comments, which were made at a local NAACP event. Sherrod then took to the media airwaves Tuesday, saying she was unfairly attacked and that the entirety of her remarks, delivered in March in Georgia, were not about racism, but part of a larger story about racial reconciliation and learning from her mistakes.