Confederate History Month fight: Obama rebukes Virginia governor

President Obama said it was 'unacceptable' for the Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell, not to mention slavery when reinstating Confederate History Month.

Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP/File
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell walks out of the State Capitol on March 31, 2010. McDonnell sparked controversy by issuing a proclamation to reinstate Confederate History Month without every mentioning slavery, an omission that President Obama said is 'unacceptable.'

President Obama has waded again into America's uncomfortable race debate, this time taking on a persistent view of the Civil War: that slavery was not what primarily caused it.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) invited an uproar after deciding to reinstate Confederate History Month without mentioning "slavery." That word had been included in previous Confederate heritage proclamations. (Governor McDonnell later apologized and added language that painted slavery as a cause of the war and as a "hateful" institution.)

"I don't think you can understand the Confederacy and the Civil War unless you understand slavery,'' said Mr. Obama, who sent a wreath, as presidents have done since Woodrow Wilson, to the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery last Memorial Day. (Moreover, first lady Michelle Obama is a descendant of Southern slaves.)

McDonnell's initial omission of slavery in his proclamation was "unacceptable," Obama said.

The president's statements, made to ABC News correspondent George Stephanopoulos, were an unusually harsh rebuke – reminiscent of his first comments on the controversial arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. last summer at his home in Cambridge, Mass.

Obama's entry into the debate about the Confederate legacy shows that the president, though careful, speaks his mind about race when he feels it's warranted. Indeed, says one expert on race in America, the subject of race becomes ripe for discussion after certain events.

"Race has been just beneath the surface of recent politics. So I think it's healthy to every once in a while get [someone like McDonnell] to set something up so it can be made explicit in a very safe context," says Thomas Pettigrew, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "In other words, [race] is sort of the elephant in the room: No one wants to mention it, but every once in a while something comes along to make it possible to mention it."

But the damage has already been done, apparently: Blowback from Confederate History Month could affect McDonnell's national political aspirations, writes The Washington Post. And many black Americans took offense – not at the overall historical debate, but at McDonnell's original proclamation. As Mr. Pettigrew says, "The original statement by the governor sounded like, oh, what a terrible thing it was that the South lost and the implication that we couldn't still have slavery."

That's what Obama appeared to take away, too.

"It's just a reminder that when we talk about issues like slavery that are so fraught with pain and emotion, that, you know, we'd better do some thinking through how this is going to affect a lot of people," Obama said.

The presidential rebuke comes at an uneasy political time in America, only weeks after two black members of Congress accused 'tea party' protesters of launching a racial epithet on the Capitol steps. (Tea partyers deny the charge, saying there's no evidence from the well-documented event to suggest an epithet was used.)

To be sure, the rebuke could carry some political risks for Obama, especially among white independents in the South – some of whom helped him take Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida in the 2008 election. It probably doesn't help Obama that his cabinet is notably short on Southerners.

Then again, most of Virginia – and the South for that matter – probably disagreed with McDonnell's initial framing of Confederate History Month, says Pettigrew, himself a native Virginian. Virginia became the first state, in 2007, to apologize for the institution of slavery. Back in 1830, Virginia nearly became the first Southern state to abolish slavery – the law failing by only a handful of votes.

"The statement by the governor of Virginia was so extreme that this is a pretty easy shot for the president, and there's not much risk in it among the people who voted for him," says Pettigrew.

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