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A place for race on Obama's agenda

The USDA official's firing came after a conservative blogger posted her truncated comments to the NAACP that, 24 years ago, she didn't help a white farmer as much as she could have.

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By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010

Two years ago, in a powerful speech in Philadelphia, presidential candidate Barack Obama warned that Americans will not be able to overcome their divisions if they continue to "tackle race only as a spectacle."

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This week, however, the subject of race returned to the forefront as just that: A spectacle over a selectively edited Internet video that led to the hasty firing of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod for seemingly making racist comments. Then came a rush of recrimination and vindication when a fuller version revealed that she had actually been giving a speech about overcoming prejudice.

On Thursday, Obama called Sherrod from a private study off the Oval Office to apologize for his administration's missteps, but Sherrod insisted that there was much more that he should do.

"The president, if he could actually look at this in the way that he should, he could help bring this front and center and do a lot to help at least start the process," she told Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart in an interview a few hours before she talked to Obama. "I don't think he can solve it by himself. But being in the position he's in, he could do a lot to help this nation get to the point where we can deal with it."

"What happened to me," she added, "was an attempt to run away from it."

(Shirley Sherrod asks: 'Where are we headed?')

Whether that is true or not, the subject of race has had a way of catching up with Obama.

His apology to Sherrod came on the one-year anniversary of a news conference in which Obama kicked up the first racially charged controversy of his presidency by declaring that the Cambridge, Mass., police had "acted stupidly" by arresting his friend Henry Louis Gates Jr., an African American professor at Harvard and one of the nation's preeminent scholars. The ensuing storm of criticism led to the "beer summit" at which Gates and the officer who arrested him shared brews in the Rose Garden with Obama and Vice President Biden.

Officials conceded privately that one of the reasons the White House kept its distance from the Sherrod controversy when it first erupted, with the posting of the misleading video by blogger Andrew Breitbart, was that it didn't want to ignite yet another round of racism accusations against the administration by conservative media.

(Davidson: Even political appointees deserve due process)

As Obama himself has pointed out many times, it would have been naive to think that the election of the nation's first African American president would be enough to make the country a paradise of racial harmony.

"If there's a lesson to be drawn from this episode," Obama told ABC's "Good Morning America" in an interview taped Thursday, "it's that rather than us jumping to conclusions and pointing fingers at each other, we should all look inward and try to examine what's in our own hearts and, as a consequence, I think we will continue to make progress."


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