Shirley Sherrod debacle: why Obama stumbles on race
The Obama administration hastily forced the resignation of a black Agriculture Department official, Shirley Sherrod, who was accused of racism. Shirley Sherrod was later exonerated. It's the second time in two summers that President Obama has become mired in a matter of race.
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One year ago, President Obama said a white police sergeant in Cambridge, Mass., "acted stupidly" when he arrested a black Harvard scholar on his own front porch. He later brought all the parties to the White House for a "beer summit" – the president's tacit atonement for his comment.
Now, Mr. Obama has had to backtrack again, telling Ms. Sherrod Thursday that he regretted the events of the past few days – in which Sherrod was labeled a racist and forced to resign from her post in the Agriculture Department only to be exonerated a day later.
During the 2008 election, Obama suggested that, if elected, he would have "a special insight" into America's black-white divide. Yet in office, Obama has stumbled – not so much with the grand themes of racism in America but with his own unique own role in refereeing a race debate that remains complex but often devolves into farce and caricature.
Part of this problem would seem unavoidable: As America's first black president, Obama faces outsize expectations as a model and a national arbiter on matters of race. Yet those expectations have been further complicated by the rising intensity of Washington's partisan cable news and online echo chamber.
"You've got this strange phenomenon where you have all these little entities working to achieve not necessarily a partisan, but ideological, objective, and the White House ends up getting caught in the middle," says Daniel Klinghard, a political scientist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. "There's a lot of discomfort over this issue, and it's breaking to the surface now."
The online echo chamber
The Sherrod episode began when conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart released a video on his website of a March 27 speech by Sherrod at an NAACP function. Mr. Breitbart, who is waging a campaign against what he sees as liberal race-baiting, posted only an excerpt of the speech. In that excerpt, Sherrod told a story from the 1980s about when she refused to use the "full force" of her abilities to help a white farmer.