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July 23, 2010

Shedding a light on race, equity and food

A couple of years ago I took on an in the food movement. I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the United States ShirleySherrodassignment to write about racial equity and social justiceDepartment of Agriculture or its history of inequity. So I started with what I knew to do: research. I typed in race and farming. It made sense to me. I needed a background, a point of reference. To my surprise there was entry after entry on discrimination against black, Native American and Hispanic farmers. The discrimination resulted in a class action suit filed by black farmers, known as the Pigford Case. I went on to interview a few black farmers to get their take on this. For more information on the Pigford Class Action Suit go here.

Fast forward to July 21, 2010. Shirley Sherrod, an employee of the USDA was asked to submit her resignation because she told her truth. Back in March she made an honest and open speech in front of the NAACP about her personal journey and evolution around race while she was working in rural Georgia at the Federation of Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund. So she lost her job at USDA for an experience she had when she was employed by another organization 24 years ago.

I am sure that Ms. Sherrod never set out to be the next Rosa Parks. And I am sure that she never expected to lose her job for telling the truth. Instead, the head of the USDA reacted to a snippet of a tape of her speech. The NAACP reacted as well, throwing her under the bus for a speech that Ms. Sherrod made at one of their meetings months before. One that she says she has made several times to illustrate her change of heart.

I am sure it couldn’t have been easy for her to work with farmers in rural Georgia. I bet she has some stories about being called names and threatened by the white farmers she tried to help over the years. Whatever she saw, and felt, she clearly was able to move past it. It is a lesson that we all need to hear. And we could have heard it, if the tape hadn’t been edited.

The rest of the tape addresses lots of things including Sherrod’s story of the death of her father in a racist act. She talks about having crosses burned on her family’s lawn and about her commitment to stay in the South to change things. Yet, if you read the Tea Party blogs, or watched only Fox News, you would have heard only a couple of lines of her speech—out of context.

When a spokesperson for the Tea Party admitted that it was their intention to embarrass the NAACP by editing and sending this tape out virally, they set in motion a firestorm that made a whole lot of people look bad. The house may be on fire, but remember there was somebody standing there with a gas can and a match. Will we continue to let the flame throwers set the Shirley Sherrods of the world on fire for sport?

If you think that we live in a post-racial society, now that we have the first African American president, then think again. My heart broke a little when I heard Ms. Sherrod say “I can’t believe I am out of a job.” Shirley, I can’t either. I am not surprised that extreme conservatives work tirelessly to stir up the tensions of race. But I am horrified that the NAACP and the USDA were so reactionary. Right now I am sure that Tea Party members all over the country are having a great laugh at the expense of a woman in her 60s who told a story about how she has come to view race and poverty.

As a child of the 60s, I have seen hate around race. I have seen how far we’ve come. But I see how much healing we need to do. As of this writing, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack has apologized to Ms. Sherrod and offered her a job. Not her job, but a job. The NAACP also apologized. But when will we stop being a PR machine, reacting to save funding and chase a few public opinion points? I am sure that the USDA acted to curb any embarrassment to the administration. How’d that work out USDA? Are you willing to shake the trees and go back to and chase out the hundred or so years of discrimination against black, Native American, Asian and Hispanic farmers?

I also want to thank CNN for doing real journalism. They teach us a lesson. Blogs and tweets are just sources—not the story. Real journalists roll up their sleeves and vet stories. They look at real tapes. They give balanced coverage. In fairness to other media outlets, it is true that there is a rush to get the story out there as quickly as you can in the 24-hour news cycle. We feed the beast as fast as we can. Maybe we need to slow down and ask some questions, especially when we call for someone to get fired.

The media has a lot of work to do. And so do we: the food advocates, the innovative thinkers, the food and public health policymakers, and the pundits. Race is an uncomfortable conversation. But I am now convinced that we need to have more conversations, even in the food world. When the food advocates talk about where our food comes from and where it goes, we need to talk about disparities and equity. We need to address our humanity and our diverse American culture. We need to find our own courage to let this moment be the catalyst for change. It’s easy to get angry about injustice. But it is difficult to be a part of the change. Let’s take a deep breath and move forward in truth, honesty and equity in food. Thank you Shirley Sherrod for the lesson.

This blog post was written by IATP Food and Society Fellow Andrea King Collier.

Andrew Ranallo

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