Did fear of racial backlash trigger administration blunder?

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 23, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Is President Barack Obama afraid of talking about race? Of being seen as too black? As an anti-white racist?

Analysts say the Obama administration's hasty decision this week to fire a black Agriculture Department employee who'd been falsely accused of racism was made in a moment of panic driven by fear of conservative media criticism or a white political backlash.

"Hysterical blindness," said Katheryn Russell-Brown, the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida Law School. "They are afraid of being labeled as racist."

"They're trying to protect him," added Ron Walters, a retired political science professor from the University of Maryland. "He has a right to be sensitive. But in terms of managing these things, he doesn't have a right to look weak and skittish."

The Obama administration spent the week trying to explain how and why it acted so quickly to fire Shirley Sherrod from her job as the director of rural development in Georgia for the Department of Agriculture without inquiring whether right-wing activist Andrew Breitbart's allegation that she'd boasted about discriminating against a white farmer was true.

In fact, her explanations of how she'd helped the man save his farm and how she learned from the case to treat all people equally were edited out of Breitbart's video clip of Sherrod talking about the farmer.

Obama apologized to Sherrod, and at week's end she was still pondering the Agriculture Department's plea to return.

Afterward, the president spoke only briefly in public about the mistake. He told ABC that he and Sherrod shared life experiences, both learning to overcome racial stereotypes.

The nation's first president of mixed race — white mother, black father — got to the White House by avoiding the subject of race and shunning anything that might label him a "black" candidate like Jesse Jackson and cost him support from white voters. At the onset of his campaign, in fact, there were complaints that he wasn't "black enough" to win black votes against Hillary Clinton.

Thus, Obama gave a detailed speech on race during the 2008 campaign only after he was forced to explain his ties to the racially inflammatory Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

In office, he's avoided comments and policy proposals that could be seen as favoring blacks over whites.

"I can't pass laws that say I'm just helping black folks," he told the American Urban Radio Networks when he was pressed to push jobs programs to help blacks.

"I'm the president of the United States. What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That in turn is going to help lift up the African-American community."

He's had setbacks, though.

His appointment of Van Jones as a green jobs czar at the White House backfired when it was revealed that Jones supported the "truther" theory that former President George W. Bush had allowed the 2001 terrorist attacks to happen. Fox News commentator Glenn Beck derided Jones as a black nationalist, and Jones was pushed out.

Obama also stirred up a racial storm a year ago when he said that a white Massachusetts police officer had acted "stupidly" when he arrested prominent African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. The president later said his words were ill chosen.

Obama and his aides blame the news media in part for driving the administration to fire Sherrod in haste, saying the cloudburst of commentary on the Internet without fact, balance or investigation made it difficult to respond.

John Zogby, a pollster, said the rapidly changing media ecosystem was a factor, as emotional charges such as racism grabbed people's attention when they were bombarded with information, true or false, from TV, radio, the Internet, in e-mails or in Tweets.

"People pay special attention to the 'gotcha' moment," he said. "There's a feeling that we're ultra-sensitive to racism, so we've got to deal with this quickly because these things move so quickly these days."

Zogby and others said the media's haste didn't excuse bad management, however. "It's a reminder how we have to adjust to the media . . . and at the same time hold on to traditional virtues and ways of doing business," Zogby said.

For weeks, the right-leaning Fox News network had been reporting other allegations of pro-black bias in the Obama administration.

During the first two weeks of July, Fox devoted more than 3.5 hours of airtime to a former Bush administration lawyer's allegations that the Obama Justice Department had scaled back voter intimidation charges against a member of the tiny New Black Panther Party out of favoritism for black defendants.

"Clearly, that's part of the context and why they felt the need to act quickly," Zogby said.

"The president is vulnerable because many of the things he's done will be perceived in a racial perspective," Walters said. "He has to take on that factor. But he can't be so vulnerable that it makes him look weak or like a bad manager or unpresidential."

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