In an emotionally charged meeting with several members of the Congressional Black Caucus Wednesday evening, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sought to explain why he demanded Shirley Sherrod resign from the department.
According to more than one lawmaker, Vilsack was extremely apologetic and emotional, shedding tears as he sought the caucus’s forgiveness and expressed a desire to atone.
“He took responsibility for making a snap judgment that was motivated by his overpowering desire to make sure that the department rid itself of any vestiges of discrimination,” said an equally emotional Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Georgia). Vilsack also recalled a 2008 speech delivered by the civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis that inspired him when he became secretary in 2009 to commit to changing the culture at USDA.
“Eighteen months in, not much has changed,” noted Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Missouri). “During the meeting, the point was made quite clearly that there’s a culture at USDA that’s negative to African American taxpayers that interact with that agency, black farmers and probably among the staff, and that culture needs to be changed.” Vilsack agreed but still has no definitive plan to achieve that goal.
Race is one of those prickly issues about which few people in Washington care to have a real conversation anymore. President Barack Obama, it often seems, tries very hard to avoid it, rather than speak frankly about race and work to lead the nation past it. It even colors Obama’s relationship with CBC members, the majority of whom are unable to openly express their dismay over the president’s avoidance of race for fear of backlash from their constituents who adore the nation’s first black president and won’t tolerate a word against him.
Some members say the Sherrod incident is a teachable moment that could lead to a national conversation about race.
“I suspect this will be a transformational moment for USDA, Vilsak and the people of America, particularly as we can lift this moment up to deal with healing the divisions among us,” Bishop said.