Obama: U.S. Has Long Way To Go In Race Relations

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In remarks to the Urban League and in a taped TV appearance, President Obama said Thursday that the Shirley Sherrod firing last week showed how racial tension remains a problem for the nation.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.


And Im Robert Siegel.

Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department employee who was fired last week over allegations of racism, says she plans to sue the conservative blogger who touched off the controversy.

Today, President Obama used the episode to call for a mature and truthful conversation about race, a topic he has generally tried to avoid since coming to the White House.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama says the furor that erupted around Shirley Sherrod last week is a reminder of just how far America still has to go to promote the values of fairness and understanding.

President BARACK OBAMA: She deserves better than what happened last week.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama said Sherrod was the victim of a bogus controversy, when a snippet of a speech she'd given at an NAACP meeting was posted on the Internet. Sherrod, who's black, is seen telling how she initially hesitated to help a white farmer. What wasnt posted was the rest of the speech in which she described overcoming that prejudice. By the time that part of the speech became public, Sherrod was out of a job.

President OBAMA: Now, many are to blame for the reaction and overreaction that followed these comments, including my own administration.

HORSLEY: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has since apologized to Sherrod and offered her a new job. The president himself spoke with Sherrod last week.

Mr. Obama recounted the episode this morning in a speech to the National Urban League.

President OBAMA: What I said to Shirley was that the full story she was trying to tell, a story about overcoming our own biases and recognizing ourselves and folks who on the surface seem different, is exactly the kind of story we need to hear in America.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says all Americans have their racial biases. He suggested people should make more of an effort to discuss those divisions, not in the heated spotlight of cable television, but around kitchen tables and water coolers, in church basements and schools.

Mr. Obama sounded a similar theme during the presidential campaign in a well-regarded speech in Philadelphia. Back then, the intemperate comments of his former pastor forced Mr. Obama to confront the issue of race directly. Now the Shirley Sherrod incident has him talking frankly again.

The president was asked about race in more personal terms this week by Barbara Walters on "The View."

(Soundbite of show, "The View")

Ms. Barbara Walters (Co-Host, "The View"): Your mother was white.

President OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WALTERS: Why - wouldnt it be helpful or why dont you say, Im not a black president, Im biracial?

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama noted that he'd written extensively about his own search for identity in his first book, "Dreams From My Father." Speaking to the audience of "The View," he said he's less interested in how people label themselves than how they treat one another.

President OBAMA: We're going through common struggles. I mean, the fact of the matter is that everybody here - and I look out at this audience and its representative of the country - everybody here is connected in some fashion.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama acknowledged it's easier for people his daughters' ages to overlook racial differences than it is for people of Sherrod's generation or his own. He ended his speech to the Urban League by reading a letter he'd received from a 10-year-old Kentucky girl, NaDreya Lattimore.

President OBAMA: We are not black, were not white, biracial, Hispanic, Asian, or any other nationality. No, she wrote: We are the future.

HORSLEY: To that, Mr. Obama replied, NaDreya, you're right.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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