Wow, is the Breitbart/Sherrod/Vilsack story a Golconda of learnable moments, or what? Let us count the ways:
(1) At some point, USDA was justifying firing Sherrod by proudly pointing to its “zero-tolerance” policy on racism. ‘Zero defects’ is a management slogan with some utility as a goal in quality assurance, actually a restatement of ‘continuous improvement’, but even there not a serious floor under actual performance. Zero tolerance, however, is up there with “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in the pantheon of really stupid airport management book bromides [would you fly on on airplane maintained according to the latter rule? was the reason for Beethoven’s ninth symphony that the first eight were broken or defective in some way?]; it’s an excuse to shelve judgment and hide behind a rule book. It’s cowardly. The only organization properly managed on a zero tolerance basis has no actual people in it. As Bob Leone taught me, good management isn’t about eliminating risk, sometimes not even reducing it, but choosing the right risks.
(2) Not everyone with access to the internet is a journalist or a reliable source or honest or decent. Again, there’s no escape from judgment and discrimination: Breitbart has been right about so many things (whether he prefers his own coffee with or without cream, the likelihood that the sun would rise in the morning, whether it’s safe to cross the street now, etc.) and yet, to get all bent out of shape when he claims to have a smoking gun video about something is either cowardice or the sleep of reason; enter nightmare.
(3) When these things go off the rails, it seems they are jinxed indefinitely. What job did Vilsack offer Sherrod to make things right? A job being in charge of non-discrimination in USDA; oy vey. Sherrod, who is coming off like a tree full of owls, is diffident about being USDA’s recycling bin into which everyone else can shed their duties in this regard. She isn’t quoted as saying it, but is probably thinking that there’s something wrong with the idea that discrimination is an issue [women and] people of color have, and that an affirmative action officer has to be black or brown.
And there is something wrong with it: pervasive racism in USDA, directed against blacks, is what white USDA officials had and what, through a devastating lawsuit, has damaged the whole agency, not just its minority staff and black farmers. Having someone other than the CEO in charge of quality assurance is usually a signal that quality assurance is a distraction or a side issue; same for having an affirmative action officer or whatever you call it: “I don’t have to actually act affirmatively, we have Shirley to do that for us”. Private firms don’t have a “vice president for being profitable”; being profitable is everyone’s job in a way that deliveries and facility maintenance is not. Not discriminating is everyone’s job, (i) not a peripheral function that should be offloaded to an administrative unit with a figurehead manager, and especially, despite Breitbart’s apparent belief to the contrary, (ii) not something minorities and women have been especially neglecting and need to get better at, or (iii) not something that only benefits discrimination victims.
Another thing that’s wrong with it is the insulting implication that having given a good speech about her personal learning history and having been, briefly, a poster girl for mistreatment somehow makes Sherrod qualified to work this kind of transformation in a large, inertial agency. Her expertise is in rural development and building farmers’ prosperity, not in HR or organizational transformation: what does it say about Vilsack’s real motivation to succeed in the not-discriminating business that he would appoint someone to advance it who has no visible qualifications, expertise or experience in the task?
The Obama administration is increasingly taking hits from Democrats for being wimpy and not taking the fight to its enemies [note: I use the word enemies on purpose; the motivation of the rump that has captured the Republican party to damage the current administration and congressional majority, rather than to accomplish anything in the area of governance and policy beyond enriching its donors, is amply demonstrated] and much too deferential in the face of the right-wing media fringe. This episode can be a wake-up along these lines, and explicitly recognizing a difference between partisan megaphones and real journalists would be a good entry to a better path.
A last note: (1) has some resonance with the nonsense floating around about the late lamented Journolist listserv. Aside from the scurrilous quality of snooping around in stolen off-the-records archives to no real purpose except sneering and smirking, the idea that having found this or that careless musing someone once said has any value in understanding the person or his friends is a version of the zero-defects fallacy. And I rush to disclose that I was a member of j-list, am a member of its successor, and I didn’t conspire, plot, or coordinate these remarks with any of their members, though they are at least 20% more insightful (from whatever base) than they would have been without having learned from the discussions there. Sheesh.