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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tells reporters Wednesday that he acted in haste in firing Shirley Sherrod, a black US Agriculture Department official, after it appeared she had made racist remarks in a heavily edited video posted on a conservative website. President Obama called Ms. Sherrod to express his 'regret' Thursday.

In its handling of the Shirley Sherrod case this week, the Obama administration has underscored that the nation's first black president is still finding his way on how to deal with race.

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.

In the uproar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack forced Sherrod to resign Monday, and Obama backed the move. By Tuesday, however, the white farmer at the center of the controversy refuted claims that Sherrod was a racist, and when the full video emerged, it showed that the point of Sherrod's story was that she had used the incident to move beyond racial stereotyping.

Secretary Vilsack has apologized and offered her another job.

A year ago, Obama used his beer summit to encourage Americans to do likewise – to have frank and at times uncomfortable discussions about race. But Professor Klinghard wonders if a more open discussion on race has led to a more visceral and at times angry discussion on race.

"It seems like people use the fact that we have a black president as an excuse to talk about race in a different way, which reflects something about the state of racial relations in America," he says. "But to assume that the history of racial problems is over so now we can just unleash I think takes us to a very bad place."

Obama's unique position

So far, Obama is caught in the uncomfortable position of both representing America's dramatic forward progress on race while also, by virtue of who he is, being a lightning rod for racist attitudes by both blacks and whites.

At the same time, the way he ran for president in 2008 – trying as much as possible to take race out of the equation – might have undercut his ability to control the narrative around his historic achievement.

"By running a racially transcendent campaign, Obama may have implicitly sent a message to non-black people that he wouldn't address racial issues, so when racial issues come up, he's hamstrung," says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

Curiously, the woman at the center of America's current race debate suggests that Obama might be hamstrung in other ways, too. The fact that he is the son of a white American and black Kenyan – an Ivy League-educated lawyer without African-American heritage – might be clouding Obama's political judgment, Sherrod said.

"He's not someone who has experienced some of the things I've experienced through life being a person of color," Sherrod told ABC News. "He might need to hear some of what I could say to him."


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