White House Dragged Back Into Racial Fray The promise of the Obama presidency was that racial divisions would be seen differently with a black man in the White House. But this week's fiasco over the firing of Shirley Sherrod at the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows how the divide endures.
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White House Dragged Back Into Racial Fray

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White House Dragged Back Into Racial Fray

White House Dragged Back Into Racial Fray

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This week's controversy over Shirley Sherrod was a reminder that race is still volatile in America. She was fired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, then asked to return. An Internet video falsely suggested she had acted with racial prejudice against a white farmer. The Obama administration has been facing questions about its response to this and other issues when race is a factor.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: The Obama presidential campaign tried hard to avoid a focus on race, but sermons by the candidate's pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, pushed the issue to the fore.

Mr. JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Reverend): No, no, no. Not God bless America, God damn America.

President BARACK OBAMA: I suppose the politically safe thing to do would be to move on from this episode, and just hope that it fades into the woodwork.

SHAPIRO: Instead, candidate Obama delivered a high-profile speech in Philadelphia in March of 2008, saying: Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. He said the U.S. has been stuck in a racial stalemate for years.

President OBAMA: Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

SHAPIRO: That speech helped make candidate Obama President Obama. But a month after he took office, another frank discussion of race was received very differently. This time, the speaker was the nation's first black attorney general, Eric Holder, at a Justice Department Black History Month event.

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (U.S. Attorney General): Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as a - ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been - and we, I believe, continue to be - in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.

SHAPIRO: The White House was furious that with one artless phrase, Holder had turned everyone's attention back to issues of race, and away from the president's agenda.

Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy is writing a book about race and the Obama presidency, and he says anytime race becomes the issue, Mr. Obama stands to lose.

Professor RANDALL KENNEDY (Harvard University): He doesn't want a lot of explicit race talk, because when there's race talk, people get anxious. When people get anxious, there's more conflict. And he is on the electoral losing end of that arrangement.

SHAPIRO: The White House got a powerful reminder of this just one year ago, when the president said...

President OBAMA: The Cambridge police acted stupidly.

SHAPIRO: A white police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had arrested the black Harvard law professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. When a reporter asked Mr. Obama about it, a presidential news conference that had been about health care veered off into talk of race.

And this week, again, an incident spawned a national furor because race was involved. Though the president signed two major bills into law this week -financial regulation and unemployment insurance - the Sherrod controversy dominated the news. Here's presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I don't think the president was under any illusion that - and I think has said as such - that his election alone would change long-held views.

SHAPIRO: The Congressional Black Caucus put out a formal call this week for a national dialogue on race. President Clinton tried to start such a dialogue in the 1990s without much success. Minyon Moore was a political director in the Clinton White House, and she doesn't blame President Obama for taking a different approach.

Ms. MINYON MOORE (Former White House Political Director): Well, maybe his challenge is not to talk about it as much as it is to do something about it. And maybe the time that he has spent trying to get a health-care bill passed, the time that he has spent trying to get finance reform, the time that he has spent trying to build an education system that will incorporate all of God's children, maybe that is the way he is speaking to closing the racial gaps.

SHAPIRO: And maybe Moore will be right about deeds mattering most in the long run. But for now, incidents like the Sherrod controversy will continue to remind the president how race is an issue the nation cannot ignore.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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