For Obama, fir­ing of U.S. of­fi­cial again brings is­sue of race to fore

Pres­i­dent of­fers his own apol­ogy as flap re­news old de­bates

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Sh­eryl Gay Stolberg

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.

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