A White House Tale Of Race, Politics And Videotape

This week's Washington drama culminated in an apology from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to an employee he had dismissed just days before. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR's Juan Williams about the latest racial controversy to bog down the Obama administration.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

It's been a tale of race, politics and videotape this past week in Washington; a tale that culminated in an apology from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to an employee he had dismissed just days before.

Accusations have been flying back and forth about racism and about political posturing by the Tea Party Movement, cable TV hosts, the NAACP and the administration.

NPR's Juan Williams is here to help sort out this combustible mix. Juan, good to see you.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good Sunday morning, Liane.

HANSEN: How did Shirley Sherrod, who headed the USDA's Rural Development Office in Georgia, become the spark that lit the events of the past week?

WILLIAMS: Well, what happened was that a clip of a speech that Shirley Sherrod gave to the NAACP in Georgia was posted by a conservative website run by Andrew Breitbart, BigGovernment.org. And in the clip it appears that Shirley Sherrod is saying that she didnt give her best efforts to a farmer because he was white.

And that led to charges of racism, discrimination by the Obama administration -a black president, a black attorney general. And is this a case where you have now black people taking, you know, revenge against whites?

And this was in the air and, of course, immediately the Agriculture Department said, oh, we can't have this and so she was fired. And there was supposedly, according to Shirley Sherrod, some pressure from the White House to have her fired.

But then, it turned out that what was posted was the incomplete clip, because it was actually a story of reconciliation, in which she realizes her wrongdoing - this is 24 years ago - and then helps the farmer whose family now says that, in fact, Shirley Sherrod saved his farm. And thats what led Vilsack and President Obama to have to then apologize.

HANSEN: Did anyone benefit from this controversy?

WILLIAMS: You know, there's so many agendas here, but let me just point one out to you. At the Justice Department there's an ongoing fight about whether the Bush administration politicized that Justice Department - in specific, their civil rights division.

Now, what you have is, on the top of this, there was a suit filed by the Bush people against two members of the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia for voter intimidation. The feeling among some Republican conservatives was that the Obama administration did not aggressively pursue that. And they said again, reverse discrimination; you got two black people charged with voter intimidation, if those were whites you would have been going after them.

On top of that, remember, youve got immigration which can be very racial as a hot-button issue in the country. And secondly, youve got this whole set of issues surrounding the Tea Party going after some of the Obama administration officials, and the NAACP then responding by saying that the Tea Party needs to renounce racist elements within their ranks.

HANSEN: What did you make of the official response?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know what, I mean at some point you had to say how could it be that the NAACP didnt look at the entire tape before condemning Shirley Sherrod? Why did the Obama administration not take the time? Why did Secretary Vilsack react in such a knee-jerk fashion?

And again, I think that everybody has so many agendas at plays, so much politics going on. Thats how people benefitted, Liane. And I think people are willing to push that race button and play the race card, if you will, to distract people from their own sins.

HANSEN: Do you think this controversy may be a preview of sorts in the run up to the midterm elections?

WILLIAMS: Without a doubt. People have to stir their base on either side, Republican and Democrat, and race is just a proven way to get the juices flowing. And again, I think it, you know, distracts people from this larger conversation about politics. And racial politics sometimes becomes a substitute for a way to say to your base: turn out.

And you know what, turn out is going to be very determinative in the 2010 fall elections. And both sides see that they can use it as a way to get their folks to the polls.

HANSEN: NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Thanks for coming in, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome. Liane.

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