Joe Biden's agriculture appointment is a slap in the face to Black voters

Ryan Cooper

Whether Joe Biden has a successful presidency depends on the upcoming Georgia Senate runoffs more than any other factor. If Democrats sweep both seats, the party will just barely control the Senate, and will theoretically be able to pass at least some laws (especially if they abolish the filibuster and make D.C. and Puerto Rico new states). If they lose just one, Mitch McConnell will surely bottle up just about all legislation, and may not even allow Biden to staff his administration.

But Biden is already betraying his most loyal group of supporters, namely African-Americans, and harming Democrats' chances in the runoff in the process. Top Black Democrats had been pushing for a qualified, progressive Black woman to lead the Department of Agriculture (USDA), but Biden passed her over for a white man whose most notable prior accomplishment was giving in to a racist smear campaign directed at another Black woman. Now Biden is preemptively blaming Black activists in case that decision contributes to his party to whiffing the Georgia runoffs.

Here's the backstory. As David Dayen writes at The American Prospect, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), a Black progressive who has sat on the House Agriculture Committee for the last 12 years, has been angling for the USDA gig. This department is traditionally thought to be the preserve of corn-fed white guys from Iowa, basically because it has "agriculture" in the name, but by far the biggest responsibility of the department is actually administering the massive food stamp program. Fudge's argument was that she would both be a representation victory (there has never been a Black woman in that position), and that she would bring an informed new perspective to the department. Rather than funneling subsidies to corporate agribusiness, she said she would focus on getting qualified people enrolled on food stamps (currently the Trump administration is trying to kick as many people off as possible), helping smaller farmers, and environmental conservation.

Instead, Biden sprang for Tom Vilsack, a corn-fed white guy from Iowa who ran the department under President Obama, and appointed Fudge to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

This is a slap in the face of Black Democrats in multiple ways. First, it reinforces the stereotype that HUD is where you stuff token Black people you don't actually care about (see: Ben Carson), basically because it has "urban" in the name. That, as well as the fact that it has nothing to do with her area of expertise, is probably why Fudge had said publicly she did not want the HUD job (which, to be clear, is a very important post). Even on cynical political grounds, Biden owes a massive debt to top Black Democrats who were also pushing for Fudge — above all House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, whose well-timed endorsement very likely gave Biden the nomination.

But the most offensive part of this is Vilsack's history with Shirley Sherrod, a former Georgia USDA employee who was the victim of a racist smear campaign back in 2010, as she told me for an article I wrote several years ago. The story centered around a speech that Sherrod had given at an NAACP event. There she described how the experience of growing up under brutal Jim Crow racism — her father and cousin were murdered by white men who got off scot-free — led her to organize to help Black people exclusively in her early career. Thus when a white farmer, Roger Spooner, came to her organization in 1985 seeking aid, she initially steered him to a white lawyer.

But help was not forthcoming, and Spooner returned to ask again. It was a message from God, Sherrod concluded, instructing her that it wasn't only Black people who needed help. "Working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t," she said. She did what she could for Spooner, who kept his farm, and the two remain friends to this day. It's hardly possible to imagine a more wholesome and heartwarming story of racial reconciliation — as if Remember the Titans was about farm mortgages.

But Andrew Breitbart — the conservative propagandist who even then was infamous for racist duplicity — published a misleading edit of the video of the event, making it seem like she was refusing to help the farmer because he was white. Vilsack, in an entirely typical display of Democratic backbone, soiled his pants from gusset to knee, and his deputies forced Sherrod to pull over by the side of the road and type out her resignation on her phone — before USDA brass had even heard her side of the story. (After the truth came out, Vilsack apologized and offered her a new job, which she understandably declined.)

So why pick Vilsack? As Dayen notes, it's probably because he's been a Biden loyalist since 1988, but also likely because he is a cat's paw for Big Ag. For eight years under Obama, Vilsack blithly approved a steady roll-up of farm markets under ruthless oligopolist agribusiness and predatory middlemen, which has deeply harmed farm communities across the nation. As Alex Sammon points out at the Prospect, it's not a coincidence that since leaving office Vilsack has been collecting a million bucks a year in what amount to post facto bribes from the dairy lobby. Most farmers therefore hate his guts — particularly Black ones, because Vilsack was indifferent to their needs to the point of faking up statistics to boast about a nonexistent resurgence in Black farming.

This presents a major problem for the Georgia runoffs. Black organizations in Georgia and across the country are furious about Vilsack, because of the snub of Fudge, his abysmal record at USDA, and the fact that Sherrod is very popular among Georgia Democrats. "It's very disappointing they even want to consider him coming back after what he has done to limited resource farmers and what he continues to do to destroy lives," Michael Stovall, the founder of Independent Black Farmers told Politico. Appointing Vilsack risks deflating enthusiasm in an election which will turn entirely on which party can best motivate their base to turn out. If Biden is throwing his most loyal voters under the bus before he has even taken office, why bother voting?

Biden is evading the problem by arguing it's not his horrible decision risking the party's Senate majority, but Black activists making irresponsible demands. Ryan Grim reports at The Intercept that at a meeting with civil rights leaders, Biden dismissed the idea that Vilsack was a liability, and instead argued that police reform was the real threat. "That's how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we're talking about defunding the police," he said.

Neither Biden, nor either one of the Georgia Senate Democratic candidates, support "defunding" the police. Biden even bringing it up is politically idiotic, as it just ignites another round of Democratic infighting, and focuses yet more media attention on a slogan that moderate Democrats say is poison. But activist sloganeering has the handy property of being completely outside of Biden's control, and therefore a perfect scapegoat for a loss that just became more likely. As usual, pinning the blame for failure on someone else is the first, second, and third priority of moderate Democratic elites.

When Biden was consolidating the Democratic nomination, I worried he simply did not care about the scale of the task confronting him. This country cannot afford another do-nothing presidential administration designed mainly for post-office buckraking careers. But it seems that is what we're likely to get.

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