Shirley Sherrod has her job back and a presidential apology. ACORN is still waiting.
The cases are remarkably similar. Both Sherrod and ACORN were demonized by highly edited videos appearing on right-wing websites and widely publicized by Fox News and conservative radio hosts. In both cases the mainstream media and the federal government rushed to judgment without seeing the full unedited video. Within hours, Sherrod was fired. Within days, Congress cut off federal funding to ACORN.
The Sherrod and ACORN cases are similar in another way. Sherrod’s full speech makes clear that over the years personal experience had taught her that the key issue isn’t race but class. It’s “not about black and white” but “about those who have and those who don’t.”
ACORN thought so too. For over 30 years ACORN was the nation’s preeminent and arguably its most effective poor peoples’ organization. Its membership of 400,000 was led by poor people of all races.
ACORN confronted those who have on behalf of those who don’t, earning it the undying enmity of conservative administrations. The first President Bush’s Department of Labor convened a grant jury to investigate ACORN. It found nothing. George W. Bush’s Attorney General, Alberto Gonzalez, fired several U.S. attorneys who refused to prosecute ACORN after they found no evidence of voter fraud.
ACORN persevered. When regulators under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush failed to enforce the Community Reinvestment Act, ACORN and other groups conducted their own studies. They identified banks with patterns of discriminatory lending. A combination of bad publicity and picketing and sit-ins at corporate offices convinced many banks to reconsider and begin to make loans to creditworthy borrowers.
ACORN was as alarmed at lenders who foisted bad loans on households who couldn’t afford them as it was at lenders who refused to offer good loans to households of color who could. It was one of the first groups to sound the alarm about the subprime mortgage industry. ACORN unsuccessfully beseeched Congress not to deregulate an increasingly irresponsible banking sector.
Early on, ACORN blew the whistle on predatory lending. In 2000 it began a national campaign to combat the unscrupulous lending practices of Household Finance Corporation, one of the nation’s largest and most aggressive subprime consumer lenders.
In 2008 John Atlas and Peter Dreier illuminated the remarkable range of activities ACORN chapters were involved in by listing recent local news stories. The stories described a campaign to save working-class housing in Brooklyn, voter registration drives in Las Vegas and Orlando, a demonstration against predatory lending in Pittsburgh, and an effort to expand health insurance in Texas. There were stories highlighting ACORN’s key role in a new national coalition of unions, consumer and religious groups to fight for universal health care, plus programs to rebuild storm-destroyed homes and save others from foreclosure.
The media were quick to condemn ACORN’s alleged misbehavior, but they’ve been extraordinarily slow to report on independent studies that have exonerated the organization. Investigations by two state attorneys general uncovered no illegal behavior. According to the GAO, all complaints filed against ACORN with the Federal Elections Commission were dismissed. Six FBI investigations into alleged voter fraud by ACORN employees were closed without indictments.
This March a federal District Court ruled that the law Congress passed cutting off ACORN’s federal funding was a bill of attainder, a type of law specifically prohibited by the Constitution because of the Founding Fathers’ fear that a powerful and vindictive federal government could single out a single individual or organization for penalties.
That same month ACORN, abandoned by its former admirers and bankrupt from having to fight multiple politically inspired investigations, closed its offices. Several states have begun to re-establish ACORN-like organizations. The Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) is one example.
At this historical moment, when those with too much are making life unbearable for those with too little, such organizations are more necessary than ever.
It is time for President Obama to apologize to ACORN as he has apologized to Shirley Sherrod. It is time for the federal government to abide by the court decision and reinstate ACORN’s federal contracts. It is time for the White House to let the public know what a heroic and vital role this organization played in bettering the lives of tens of millions of the most vulnerable of us all.
The article originally appeared in the Star Tribune.