Race to judgment

While President Barack Obama was signing the third major piece of legislation of his Presidency, the US news media was

The White House should have been taking a victory lap over Wall Street Reform.  But on Wednesday, while President Barack Obama was signing the third major piece of legislation of his Presidency, the US news media was going wild over a story of deception, race, and damage control.  The day to celebrate was lost.


Here’s what happened – An African-American Department of Agriculture Employee who worked in a rural area was dismissed on Monday after a conservative website posted an edited video of Shirley Sherrod making what seemed to be racist comments at a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  The NAACP is one of the US’s most respected civil rights groups.  After a tiny bit of scrutiny, the video turned out to have been edited to make Sherrod look biased against white farmers.  The US news media didn’t pick up on the fraud and neither did the Obama administration.


Within a few days of the tape surfacing on the internet, Sherrod was forced to resign.  She says a Department of Agriculture official told her the order came from the White House.  Then, mere hours later, her full comments came out and she was vindicated.


Here’s what she really said about learning to move beyond prejudice while helping a white farmer in financial trouble back in 1986, Working with him made me see it’s about those who have versus those who don’t. They could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic.”


The Sherrod firing blunder dominated Wednesday’s White House press briefing and culminated in Press Secretary Robert Gibbs apologizing to Sherrod on behalf of the administration.  Then a couple of hours later the Secretary of Agriculture did the same and took responsibility for what happened.  Tom Vilsack said, “I didn’t take the time, I should have, and as a result a good woman has gone through a very difficult period.”


The person who posted the video was conservative activist Andrew Breitbart who offered no apology to Sherrod and said he did this to get back at the NAACP, which branded the conservative Tea Party movement as having “racist elements” last week.  Breitbart, a Tea Party supporter, told NBC News that based on what he saw, “racism existed in that room.”  He did far more than that – he got an innocent person fired and embarrassed the Obama administration for its incredible lack of judgment.


So how did speech given months ago by a low-level DOA worker about a situation from 1986 lead to a nightmare for the administration?   When someone says the word “race,” the immediate reaction – cue politician:  begin squirming.


Obama, whose mother was white and his father was black, has tried to transcend race, something he did very effectively during his Presidential campaign.  But a year ago, he proved his prowess during the campaign left him at the door of the White House.  That’s when a prominent African-American professor was arrested by a white police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts for disorderly conduct.  Henry Louis Gates was having trouble opening the door to his house.  A passerby thought it was an attempted burglary and called police.  The officer responding to the call got into a verbal altercation with Gates, leading to his arrest.


Obama was asked about the incident at a press conference in July 2009 and turned a local misunderstanding into a major national political dustup.  The President said police “acted stupidly.”  Obama rushed to judgment without the facts, and the White House had to do a lot of damage control over his comments. The same can be said in the case of Shirley Sherrod.


Sherrod hasn’t accepted the offer of a new job within the Department of Agriculture.  But she has said she’d like to talk to President Obama about what happened to her.  In the course of a week, she went from an upstanding government employee, to pariah, to vindicated celebrity.


How could the administration have gotten this so wrong?  They’ve tried to blame the media for not doing its job and Breitbart for being so vicious.  There’s enough

blame to go around for all of them. The Administration needs to be seen working on the issues – jobs, the economy, the war in Afghanistan… not spinning its wheels on mistakes made in a rush to judgment. During the press conference in July 2009 when the Gates incident blew up, Obama said, “I am standing here as a testimony to the progress that’s been made.”  So is Shirley Sherrod.  Now Obama has to prove he’s the post-racial President rather than the one afraid of the issue of race at all costs.