Apologizing to Sherrod Step in the Right Direction, but Many Lessons to Be Learned

07/22/2010 09:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made the right decision to reconsider the termination of Shirley Sherrod and offer her a new position with the United State Department of Agriculture. His actions show he is a man of integrity. Reflecting upon the mistakes made in calling for her dismissal, Secretary Vilsack acted quickly to remedy the situation.

Apologizing to Sherrod and offering her new a position with the USDA is a step in the right direction. However, there are many lessons to be learned:

1. A conservative blogger -- Andrew Breitbart -- targeted Sherrod and released an edited video on YouTube supposedly "proving" she "discriminated" against white farmers while working for the Department of Agriculture. It went "viral" and was immediately picked up and promoted by O'Reilly and Hannity at Fox News. Other media outlets -- internet, cable and networks -- rushed to air the video and story line, without meeting journalistic standards of fact checking, editorial review or demanding a full transcript of Sherrod's speech.

The mass media proved completely incapable of handling this latest issue of race and racism in an objective, serious and thoughtful manner. In effect, the media jumped on the bandwagon to defame Sherrod's character and unfairly smear her integrity. They inflamed and sensationalized the matter.

We expect more from our media. Too few media organizations have too much power and are operating with too little ethical principles. This must change.

[Breitbart has targeted groups before for political purposes; most recently his manipulative videos served to unfairly discredit and defame ACORN.]

2. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency for whom Sherrod worked, also acted hastily and "in the heat of the moment." Perhaps it acted too defensively in an attempt to diffuse a sensitive situation. The agency did not take the time to carefully and objectively review the facts or grant Sherrod any due process and the opportunity to explain her circumstances. They took the video at face value and tacitly contributed to the humiliation and attempts to discredit Sherrod. They preemptively asked for her resignation.

Sherrod certainly deserved better, but fortunately she stood her ground, stated her case and in the end was vindicated.

Secretary Vilsack did the right and honorable thing by issuing an apology to Ms. Sherrod, admitting to mistakes made in the process, and offering her a new position. But the sting of humiliation lingers; our government agencies should not respond to charges of "racism" simply through reaction, but through reasoned, thoughtful, and objective review.

3. This "episode" is another teachable moment for how our media, government and nation grapple with issues of race and racism. The good news is, this time, there is a "good news" ending. President Obama invited Professor Gates and Officer Crowley to the White House for beers after Professor Gates was mistreated by the police in his own home and the issue of "racial profiling" was swirling in the air.

It would be wonderful if President Obama, who now has spoken directly to Sherrod, would invite Shirley and Charles (her husband and SNCC founder), the Spooners, and Secretary Vilsack, and give them the credit that they're due. This is a great American story: a rural white family in Georgia and a black woman, overcoming years of segregation, even the murder of her father by a white farmer in the South. It would be great teachable moment for our nation if the president were to seize this moment.

A writer once said, "unearned suffering is redemptive." It's a coming together of people from different backgrounds and races, working for justice and fairness for all. Bringing all parties together to share the lessons from this experience and lift each other up would lift up all of America.

4. We are not "beyond race" or racial inequality. It is not time to avoid discussion of race, it's a time to intensify and dignify it. We support Congresswoman Barbara Lee's call for a renewed dialogue on race. But more than a dialogue, we need a plan and remedies to address racial disparities, the legacy of slavery and segregation.

Some pundits and media outlets are fueling the fires and fears that America's "race problem" is now defined by "blacks discriminating against whites." Today's America is not a "post-racial" society. Far from it. African Americans -- from health care to education, from employment to unemployment, from high infant mortality to life expectancy -- literally from birth to grave, face abounding racial disparities and inequality in today's America.

Black America is in a state of emergency. We must renew our commitment to evening the playing field; to persist in challenging racial injustice and fighting for equality and justice for all people. That requires investment, principle, clarity and commitment. Thank you, Sherrod, for showing us the way.