For Obama, firing of U.S. official again brings issue of race to fore
President offers his own apology as flap renews old debates
WASHINGTON — It was exactly one year ago on Thursday that President Barack Obama plunged into a thicket of racial politics by declaring that a white police officer in Cambridge, Mass., had “acted stupidly” in arresting a black Harvard University professor in his own home. Suddenly, the president whose election suggested the promise of a postracial future was thrust into the wounds of the past.
A year later, Obama sought to tamp down yet another racial uproar, this one over his administration’s firing of Shirley Sherrod, a black Agriculture Department official who was dismissed based on a video clip of remarks — taken out of context — that appeared to suggest she had discriminated against white farmers. One day after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized profusely to Sherrod and offered her a new job working on race relations for the agency, Obama offered his own apology.
During a seven-minute telephone call on Thursday, White House officials said, Obama shared some of his own personal experiences and urged Sherrod to “continue her hard work on behalf of those in need.”
Later, in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the president weighed in for the first time.
Vilsack “jumped the gun,” Obama said, “partly because we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles.”
That, however, is unlikely to be the end of it for Obama, who has struggled since the beginning of his presidency with whether, when and how President Barack Obama cast Shirley Sherrod’s firing as a mistake made in haste but precipitated by the pressures of the media. to deal with volatile matters of race. No matter how hard his White House tries to keep the issue from defining his presidency, it keeps popping up, fueled in part by high expectations from the left for the first black president and in part by opposition politics on the right.
The Sherrod flap spotlighted how Obama is caught between these competing political forces, and renewed criticism from some of his supporters, especially prominent African Americans, that he has been too defensive in dealing with matters of race.
“I think what you see in this White House is a hypersensitivity about issues of race, that has them often leaning too far to avoid confronting these issues, and in so doing lays the foundation for the very problem they would like to avoid,” said Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
While he was running for president, Obama made what even his critics acknowledged was a serious and thoughtful effort to address race relations during a speech in Philadelphia in March 2008. It followed a storm of controversy about racially inflammatory statements made by his pastor.
And, as Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University sociology professor, notes, Obama wrote an entire book on race: “Dreams From My Father,” in which he dealt with his own complicated biracial history and struggle to fit into a country that sees things in black and white. Dyson, who is working on a book about Obama and race called “Presidential Race,” says the president at times seems either unable or unwilling to talk about it.
“You’ve got one of the great intellects on race in the presidency, and yet he is hamstrung; there’s a gag order,” he said. “Now some of that gag order is self-imposed, and some of it is at the behest of nervous white Americans who are fearful that Mr. Obama may racialize the presidency. So he’s got a legitimate concern that he doesn’t get pigeonholed. But the tragedy is that we need his leadership.”
The White House rejected the notion that he is avoiding a conversation on race.
“I don’t think anyone has confronted this issue more directly than the president,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser.