Shirley Sherrod and Rural America

A larger question

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Andrew Breitbart is a shit, and Shirley Sherrod is the opposite of a racist, judging from the unexpurgated version of her controversial speech. But what did she do, exactly, as Georgia director of Rural and Community Development in the Department of Agriculture? It appears that her basic job was to supervise the dispensing of $1.2 billion (in 2008) from the federal treasury to individuals and businesses in rural America.

The USDA offers some heartwarming examples of its work on its blog. Dominic and Laquinette Bourgeois wanted a house for their adorable (judging from the photo) family. Dominic said, "I heard about Rural Development several years ago…. I contacted the agency and filled out all the paperwork. But the areas available were a little too rural for my taste at the time. And we also had to address a few dings in our credit." So he waited until the area was rezoned to allow houses close together—that is, until it stopped being so rural—and then, with the help of a USDA rural development loan, he plunged.

Anyone can get a few dings in his or her credit. But it's odd that a couple who quite specifically DON'T want to live in a rural area should qualify for a rural development loan for their house. The number and variety of federal subsidies to rural areas—big farms, little farms, rural hospitals and highways, rural energy, some crops but not others, and of course rural housing—boggles the mind. The Rural Development division alone, its website brags, "has a network of 6,100 employees and 500 offices, a portfolio of business, housing, and infrastructure loans totaling $132 billion, and provides an estimated $20 billion annually to support economic and community development in rural America."

A larger question is why people who don’t want to live in a rural area should subsidize those who do. The answers—generally unsatisfactory—range from the romance of the small family farm to the imbalanced makeup of the U.S. Senate, where North Dakota and California both have two votes. Once every five years, when the farm bill comes up for renewal, Republicans pass up an opportunity to prove that their hatred of government spending is sincere by voting against this mess. Once I found myself on an airplane sitting next to a Republican senator who spent the whole trip inveighing against the stupidity of the recently enacted farm bill. I reported this, admiringly, to a colleague who said, "Yes, and he voted for it." Which was true.

In her misrepresented speech, Shirley Sherrod said that working with the white man and woman she was accused of discriminating against had taught her that "It’s about the poor," not about people’s race. If only she’d gone on to say, "It’s not about where they happen to live, either." But I suppose then the Secretary of Agriculture might have fired her and let her stay that way.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.