By April Simpson
Among the 15 members of a new Equity Commission charged with dismantling discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one name stood out: Shirley Sherrod.
Sherrod rose to national prominence more than a decade ago when right-wing website Breitbart selectively edited video of Sherrod, then the USDA’s Georgia state rural development director, telling an audience about the time she overcame her own prejudices to help a farmer hold on to his land. Instead, the video made it sound like Sherrod had discriminated against the farmer because he was white.
A media frenzy ensued. Sherrod was swiftly fired by Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, who led the department under both Obama terms. He’s leading it again now.
Sherrod was offered her job back once it became clear that the video misrepresented her words. She declined, and instead focused on her longtime grassroots work that includes pushing for social justice with New Communities, a nonprofit farm collective.
This time around, Vilsack’s administration has pledged to dismantle systemic racism at the department despite decades of mistreatment toward farmers of color in loans, program payments, civil rights complaints and more. The new Equity Commission, and its subcommittee on agriculture, are full of longtime critics of the department.
But other critics don’t think it’s possible to fix the department with Vilsack at the helm. They say USDA has published plenty of reports and recommendations over decades that spell out what it needs to do.
“The key is, this Equity Commission is nothing but a farce,” Lawrence Lucas, president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, told Public Integrity last month. “They can only find out what we already know.”
Public Integrity asked Sherrod about some of the criticisms of the new commission following its announcement Thursday, and began with the obvious question: Terrible things happened to you under Secretary Vilsack before. Why do you want to serve under him again?
*This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
One of the things I’ve always had to do was not allow some of the stumbling blocks, as I call them, get in my way of trying to push for progress. That happened about 12 years ago and Vilsack apologized. I accepted his apology and moved on. So this commission has the opportunity to try to do some good, and when you look at my life’s work, I’ve encountered the issues farmers have, working with them at the grassroots level, and then I worked within the agency for about 11 months. So I think I’m one individual who would have an insight that a lot of them won’t have, having worked in this for the last 50-something years.
There are critics of the commission who say that USDA knows what it needs to do to root out racism in the department. Is the Equity Commission necessary? What will the Equity Commission deliver in its own report that will be different?
I’m well aware of all of the reports that have happened before now; the [Civil Rights Action Team] report and others. And I’m hoping we’ll go even further with pointing out some of the things that happened within the agency, but this is a way of bringing it back to the forefront and really pushing at this time for some of the change.
Those other reports are there, we’re all aware of them, but what’s happening? To have this commission at this time really working and pushing for a change is another effort that has to happen.
A lot of Black farmers believe that USDA is trying to take their land. You, too, had a terrible experience in the 1980s when the [then-Farmers Home Administration] foreclosed and took your land. How can this commission build the trust that’s needed with Black farmers?
Trust doesn’t just happen. But when you’ve spent your whole life working on these issues. I can ride about this area of the state and in some others and look at “Oh, I helped that farmer to save his farm.” I’ve been there for these farmers. I don’t want them to think that I can perform miracles.
But as I said during that speech that Breitbart took and edited to make it appear that I refused to help a white farmer, if I can look at all of the dangerous times I’ve been through, all the work that I did with others through the years and say, “OK, here’s another opportunity. Let’s try to see what we can make happen at this time.”
If you don’t do anything, then what? I’ve worked at the grassroots level most of my work life. I grew up on a farm. My father was murdered by a white farmer who wasn’t prosecuted. I can hopefully be an example for others to say, “Let’s try one more time to trust the process and see what we can get out of it.”
The debt relief program that was in the American Rescue Plan Act last year is something Black farmers in particular fought long and hard for, and now the program is on hold. And some say that Secretary Vilsack took too long to implement the program, allowing groups to organize and file lawsuits. Overall, some say it’s another example of the ways in which USDA continues to fail Black farmers. How do you respond to that?
It would have been great if they had quickly implemented the process and I’m sure if they had started it, there would have been lawsuits to try to reverse everything that was going on when you look at who we have to deal with. These folks have been organizing maybe when we were asleep. So they’re way ahead of us in trying to be able to stop any change that comes forth.
My whole thing is, if we don’t do anything, then what? If we sit back, what are we waiting to see happen? You’ve got to keep working and I have this thing on my desk that says, success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures. Who knows whether this is going to be that time or not. I know the climate in this country is not that great for it, but we can’t stop trying.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I will be doing my best. We’ve had many different efforts through the years. To serve on this commission was an opportunity to share some of the things that I know from having advocated for farmers through the years and having fought many of their battles through the years. I’m just hoping that I can help the group to see, and that we can help each other to see what we can do this time, that could be that time when there is success and not another failure.