It appears that Andrew Breitbart and Larry O'Connor have settled on a bold new strategy for defending against Shirley Sherrod's defamation lawsuit. Sherrod, they argue in a recent court filing, really did admit to using her government job to carry out a campaign of racial discrimination.
Nearly a year ago, Breitbart and O'Connor posted a blog post and video accusing Sherrod of engaging in "racism" in her role as an Obama administration appointee at the Department of Agriculture. According to the video, Sherrod admitted in a 2010 speech to the Georgia NAACP that "in her federally appointed position, overseeing over a billion dollars... She discriminates against people due to their race."
This, of course, was a lie. It quickly emerged that the video had been deceptively edited to make it seem that Sherrod had avoided fully helping a white farmer, instead referring him to a white lawyer -- one of "his own kind." In fact, Sherrod went on to explain that she ultimately did a significant amount of work to help the white farmer. And Sherrod wasn't even describing her actions as an Obama administration appointee; rather, she was recounting an incident that took place 24 years earlier when she was working for a non-governmental organization. On this latter point, Breitbart was forced to publish an embarrassing correction.
But in an April 18 court filing, Breitbart's and O'Connor's lawyers defend the allegation that Sherrod admitted to practicing racial discrimination in her "federally appointed position." Specifically, they point to a different part of Sherrod's NAACP speech (a part that Breitbart also highlighted in his original post smearing Sherrod), in which she encouraged people of color to apply for jobs at the USDA.
From the court filing:
Moreover, Sherrod's invitation to her audience to apply for USDA jobs from which they cannot be fired evidences her continuing determination to advance the interests of African-Americans at the economic expense of people of other races and provides a clear, truthful basis for the view that as a USDA official "she discriminates against people due to their race."
Elsewhere in the filing, Breitbart's and O'Connor's lawyers make a similar argument in order to defend other charges Breitbart leveled at Sherrod:
Indeed, the entire video clip was about race and class distinctions and how they have shaped Sherrod into the person that she is. When Sherrod invites her audience to apply for USDA jobs from which they cannot be fired, she evidences her continuing and contemporary determination to advance the interests of African-Americans at the economic expense of people of other races. However problematic her invitation may be from the standpoint of public employment practices, it certainly provides a clear, truthful basis for the view that as a USDA official "she discriminates against people due to their race."
So what are they talking about? Has the Breitbart-O'Connor legal team unearthed footage of Sherrod masterminding a massive employment discrimination effort? Well, not exactly.
Here's what Sherrod actually said:
SHERROD: But before I give you -- even before I go into what I have here, I want to second something that Olivia said. You know, I grew up on the farm and I didn't want to have anything to do with agriculture, but she was right. There are jobs at USDA, and many times there are no people of color to fill those jobs because we shy away from agriculture. We hear the word "agriculture" and think only of working in the fields. And you've heard of a lot of layoffs. Have you heard of anybody in the federal government losing their job? That's all that I need to say, okay?
That's it. Sherrod went to an NAACP gathering, encouraged people of color to apply for USDA jobs, and said that the federal government doesn't typically fire people. She didn't unveil some nefarious plot to discriminate against white job applicants.
Indeed, her brief effort to encourage people of color to apply for government jobs seems to be pretty consistent with what the federal government does every single day in full public view. As The Washington Post explains:
As long as there is a federal government, there will be federal opportunities.
No doubt, though, that some programs, personnel and hiring will take a hit. But some things will remain in place, including some level of focus on a diverse workforce.
Several programs have been set up to assist in developing a workforce that looks like the country's population. The programs have various names, among them, Special Emphasis Programs, Selective Placement Programs, Employment Programs and Employment Initiatives. Throughout the federal government, the programs are designed to assist in the recruitment and career advancement of veterans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Hispanics, disabled veterans, people with disabilities, women and, in some cases, military spouses.
USDA is no exception. In a December 2008 document (published before the Obama presidency and Sherrod's appointment), USDA outlined its plans for continued improvement of "workforce diversity":
USDA is committed to workforce diversity and equal opportunity in its employment processes. The Department has made significant progress in retaining a highly-skilled workforce that reflects the public it serves. USDA has continuously improved minority representation in its workforce during the past five years and continues to make progress with respect to attracting and retaining disabled employees and other targeted groups in the workforce. Strategies include strengthening long-term partnerships with academia and professional associations as well as improving USDA's relationship with 1890 Historically Black Land Grant Institutions, Hispanic Serving Institutions, American Indian Institutions, and institutions with large numbers of Asian and Pacific Islander students. USDA also continues to promote formal career enhancement opportunities for employees in underrepresented groups and requires diversity awareness training for all employees.
But in Andrew Breitbart's world, getting sued is just another opportunity to smear Shirley Sherrod as a racist.