President Obama Speaks Via Phone With Shirley Sherrod

Former USDA official was ousted in race flap

July 21, 2010, 9:09 AM

July 22, 2010— -- President Obama spoke to Shirley Sherrod, the USDA official who was ousted after a race flap, and expressed his "regret" over the events of this past week, the White House said this afternoon.

According to the White House, Obama "emphasized that [Agriculture] Secretary [Tom] Vilsack was sincere in his apology yesterday, and in his work to rid USDA of discrimination."

On Thursday morning Agriculture Department officials e-mailed Sherrod a specific job offer and today Obama told her he hoped she would take it.

The president told Sherrod that "this situation may present an opportunity to continue helping people if she's interested, and he hopes that she will do so," the statement from the White House said.

Obama tried to reach Sherrod twice last night but was unable to leave her a message because her voice mail was full. This morning White House staff continued to reach out to her but were unsuccessful. Eventually Sherrod got the message and called back at which point she spoke to the president.

Obama reached Sherrod by telephone at about 12:35 this afternoon and their conversation lasted for seven minutes.

Sherrod accepted the apology from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the White House, but Sherrod still hasn't decided whether she will accept a job offer.

Sherrod was offered a job tasked with settling lawsuits from minority farmers who say they were discriminated against in applying for farm loans. Vilsack on Wednesday said Sherrod was offered the job because she "has a unique set of skills trying to turn the page on our civil rights chapter which has been difficult."

But the woman at the center of the national debate on race has said she still needs to discuss it with her family.

"I would not want to be the one person in the agency that everyone is looking at to clear up discrimination in the Department of Agriculture," she told "Good Morning America's" George Stephanopoulos.

The Agriculture Department official, based in Georgia, grabbed national headlines after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a video clip of her from a March NAACP event talking about her dilemma in helping a white farmer 24 years ago.

Sherrod said this morning she would welcome the opportunity to talk to President Obama, and isn't sure if he is fully behind her. The White House said Obama was first informed of the case Tuesday, most likely in the morning.

"I can't say that the president is fully behind me. I would hope that he is. I'd love to talk to him," she said. "He is not someone who has experienced what I have experienced through life, being a person of color. He might need to hear some of what I could say to him."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Wednesday apologized to Sherrod for her abrupt firing, followed quickly by Vilsack who personally apologized to her and took full responsibility for her ouster.

"Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this have all made determinations and judgment without a full set of facts," Gibbs said. "I think that is wholly and completely accurate. Without a doubt, Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology. I would certainly do so on behalf of this administration."

Sherrod, who was watching Gibbs' press briefing while sitting on the set at CNN, accepted the apology but said it was overdue.

"It makes me feel better. This should not have happened, it took too long but it makes me feel better," she said. "The apology finally came."

Gibbs reiterated multiple times that the decision to oust Sherrod was made by the USDA, and it was based on an "incomplete set of facts."

Vilsack stressed today that the decision to fire Sherrod was solely his and he acted in haste. He said he told her that he "regretted the circumstances" that led to her resignation and he should and could have done a better job.

Vilsack, who said Tuesday that "there is zero tolerance for discrimination" at his agency, flipped from his initial decision after the NAACP released the full video of Sherrod's remarks, which supported her argument that her speech had been taken out of context and in fact she'd been preaching against racism.

Senior White House officials held a conference call with Vilsack Tuesday night to discuss the issue, leading the Agriculture Secretary to release a statement Wednesday morning saying he is "of course willing and will conduct a thorough review and consider additional facts to ensure to the American people we are providing services in a fair and equitable manner."

Breitbart, the conservative guru who posted the video with the headline, "Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism -- 2010," said it was not meant to be an attack on Sherrod but rather a lesson to the NAACP that they use accusations of racism to stifle dissent.

"What this video clearly shows is a standard that Tea Party has not been held to, is that the NAACP shows people in the audience there applauding her when she discriminates against a white farmer. That was the point I was trying to make," Breitbart said on "GMA" Wedneasday. "This was not about Shirley Sherrod. This was about the smears that have gone on against the Tea Party."

The NAACP and the Tea Party have been embroiled in a heated battle since last week, when the nation's largest civil rights group passed a resolution condemning what it called racist elements in the conservative movement, and urged its leaders to denounce racism.

Many Tea Party leaders such as Breitbart deny there are racial overtones in the movement, arguing that charges of racist remarks have never been proven.

Shirley Sherrod in National Spotlight Over Debate on Race

The video clip posted on Breitbart's conservative blog featured a clip of Sherrod speaking at a March NAACP awards ceremony describing "the first time I was faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm."

Sherrod described the farmer as "trying to show me he was superior to me... What he didn't know was while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide how much help I was going to give him."

Sherrod continued, saying, "I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So I didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough."

The video was cited as proof of Sherrod's racism -- since it seems to show a government employee saying she discriminated on the basis of race -- and was seized by cable news outlets and circulated on the internet.

Left out of the story's travel throughout the media world, at least in its initial few laps, was the fact that the incident in question took place in 1986 when Sherrod worked for a non-profit, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.

Sherrod's larger argument was that her involvement with the white farmers in question -- Roger and Eloise Spooner from Iron City, Ga. -- made her realize a larger lesson.

As she said in a different part of the video --and not included by Breitbart -- was Sherrod's statement that "it was revealed to me that it's about the poor versus those who have."

On Tuesday evening, the NAACP posted a more complete video of Sherrod's remarks, and the longer version supports her story. The fuller video shows her telling the story about how the white lawyer to whom she introduced Spooner did little to help him, with Spooner calling her to tell her "the lawyer wasn't doing anything."

So Sherrod helped him. "Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't," she said. "You know, and that they could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people, those who don't have access the way others have." "

The shorter clip of Sherrod speaking at the NAACP banquet aired in the context of various racially-charged debates in the last year.

For decades, black farmers have said the USDA unfairly denied them loans or took much longer to process their loans. Earlier this year, the Obama administration agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement in a class-action lawsuit against the agency.

Vilsack today acknowledged the challenge of dealing with the multitude of lawsuits that have been brought against the USDA, saying that "trying to turn the page on our civil rights chapter... has been difficult."

Sherrod's story, she said, was to argue that race shouldn't matter.

"Up to that point, I felt they had all the advantages," Sherrod told ABC News Tuesday. "Until I started working with that farmer, I didn't think white farmers were treated like black farmers were treated by the agency... There are a few of them who get treated like black farmers. And they turned [that] into saying that I'm a racist."

The farmer who Sherrod assisted, and his wife, have come out in support of Sherrod, saying she did not discriminate on the basis of race.

"It never, never crossed my mind," Roger Spooner told ABC News. "Never crossed my mind. Me and the wife, we never, we never, we never saw that at all. Absolutely. It's unbelievable."

Spooner said that without Sherrod, he would have lost the farm.

"If we had not found her, me and my wife -- we went checking here and yonder and everywhere -- if it hadn't been for her, we'd have lost. It was just a matter of a few months and we would have lost it."

The NAACP initially sided with Vilsack, but then flipped on the issue, saying in a statement late Tuesday that it was "snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias."

"Having reviewed the full tape, spoken to Ms. Sherrod, and most importantly heard the testimony of the white farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans," NAACP president Ben Jealous said in a statement. "The fact is Ms. Sherrod did help the white farmers mentioned in her speech. They personally credit her with helping to save their family farm."

Racial sensitivities within the USDA are high, with lawsuits from black farmers, Hispanic farmers, and other groups alleging billions of dollars in unfairly denied USDA loans, rooted in racial discrimination.

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