Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaking at A Celebration Of The Life And Legacy Of Cesar Chavez at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, March 31, 2015. Photo credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung.

Biden names former USDA director Vilsack to head agency again, organizations say Vilsack discriminated against Black people

Biden slaps Black voters in the face before he is even sworn in by disappointing USDA appointment.

U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden has selected former United States Food and Drug Administration (USDA) director, Tom Vilsack, as head of the agency under Biden’s incoming administration. Vilsack served as the USDA director during both terms of the Obama administration.

But several groups would rather not experience a Vilsack comeback. They say that Vilsack’s relations with Black farmers and Black people, in general, during his tenure were troubling.

“You cannot bring (aboard) a Tom Vilsack, who wrongfully terminated Sheila (sic) Sherrod, and yet you want Black voters in Georgia to turn out on January fifth” to vote in the runoff elections for two U.S. Senate seats, said NAACP president Derrick Johnson,  “(and) that’s why it’s important to have a civil rights frame on discussions because you can fall into these traps and these traps can cause a backlash for your core voting base.”  

Johnson was referring to the July 19, 2010 incident involving Shirley Sherrod, then working for the USDA as its Georgia director of rural development. On that date, the right-wing Breitbart news blog posted an edited video of Sherrod addressing the Georgia NAACP 20th Annual Freedom Fund Banquet on March 27, 2010. In the edited video she appeared to say that she denied assistance to a white farmer because Black farmers had been historically discriminated against by the USDA.  In the unedited version, Sherrod detailed how she helped the white farmer prevent the foreclosure of his farm, even finding an attorney for him. The NAACP posted the unedited tape on YouTube.

Based on the edited video’s content, Vilsack  forced Sherrod to resign.  The White House reviewed the situation and screened the unedited tape. On July 21, 2010, White House press spokesperson Robert Gibbs apologized to Sherrod. Vilsack also apologized and offered to give Sherrod a new job. Sherrod ultimately chose against returning to the USDA.

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Sherrod forgave Vilsack, but others are not so forgiving of Vilsack’s poor relations with Black people. “Vilsack’s USDA had a troubling track record on racial justice,” said George Goehl, Director of People’s Action, a progressive activist group. In a written press statement, he noted, “During his previous tenure, the department foreclosed on Black farmers after they complained about discrimination and whitewashed USDA’s record on civil rights. He kneecapped Shirley Sherrod when white supremacists in the alt-right media published a hit piece on her, leading to her resignation.”

Climate group 350.org said in a written news release that Vilsack was no friend to small family farms. “Vilsack spent his time as Secretary of Agriculture under Obama sweet-talking Big Ag (corporate farmers), directly harming Black farmers, and furthering the USDA’s discriminatory history, including by overseeing the firing of Shirley Sherrod,” the news release reads in part.

“His appointment is disappointing and does not meet the criteria for Biden’s cabinet .  .  .  Tom Vilsack’s appointment is the exact opposite of what an administration focused on ‘building back better’ needs .  .  . we need leadership that will fight for struggling family farmers, sustainable farming and national food security, not corporate agriculture giants.”

Nuri Icgoren sits on the edge of a former motel pool where he raises key fish as he operates Urban Sprout Farms, a biodynamic, certified organic urban farm Lakewood Heights, Georgia. Their five-acre plot, just a few miles southeast of Downtown Atlanta, is home to hoop houses, fresh herb and flower beds, with a big vision for the future. With the help from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA), Urban Sprout Farms was able to address the resource concerns of the land, the education gap of the farm for the community, and provide financial assistance where needed. However, this type of opportunity is far and few between for Black farmers. Photo credit: USDA Photo by Preston Keres

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Black farmers had nicknamed the USDA “the last plantation” because of the way the agency ignored or mistreated Black farmers years before Vilsack became its director. While Vilsack claimed that the USDA under his leadership would bring about “a new era of civil rights,” an investigation conducted by The Counter, an independent news organization, found that the agency had misstated statistics to imply that the number of Black farmers in the U.S. had grown, that discrimination complaints by Black farmers against the USDA had diminished, and that a class action suit brought by Black farmers against the USDA was settled to the satisfaction of all parties.

In reality, according to The Counter, the number of Black-owned farms in the U.S. has decreased, Black farmers cannot obtain the sizeable loans offered by the USDA to white farmers, and the agency did not adequately compensate Black farmers through the class action suit, resulting in many Black farmers losing their farms to foreclosure.

Biden  could always withdraw his selection of Vilsack if enough prominent groups and individuals oppose it. But Biden and Vilsack’s friendship goes back years. Vilsack has even campaigned for Biden in Iowa, where Vilsack has served as Governor.

Efforts to reach Robert Bonnie, who heads Biden’s USDA transition team, to comment for this article, were unsuccessful.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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