By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; A03
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."
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."
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.
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."
Though he rarely addresses the subject of race explicitly, Obama's advisers insist that he has not failed to honor the promises he made in that Philadelphia speech two years ago.
But it can require something of a bank shot to make that case. "Look at an issue like education," where the administration has launched an initiative to reward states that lift their standards, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "Many civil rights leaders talk about education as a civil rights issue."
His allies say that Obama has so much else on his plate, with a recession at home and two wars overseas, that there is no room left for much else right now. And they contend that it would be difficult for him to lead a dialogue on race when he is the subject of some of its more corrosive story lines.
"You can't have this conversation when the political environment is so polluted," said Donna Brazile, an African American and a Democratic political strategist. "A healthy part of this conversation has to start with the fact that, since his election, those who oppose him have redoubled their efforts to somehow prove that he is not an American, to question his legitimacy."
Conservatives, meanwhile, say they are the ones who have had their legitimacy unfairly questioned. Since Obama became president, they say, accusations of racism have too often been hurled at his opponents when they have a difference with him over policy or philosophy.
"The left has used race as a weapon for a very long time," Erick Ericson wrote Tuesday on his RedState.com blog. "They have devalued what racism means -- which is a terrible shame if you actually care about stopping real racism or remembering it in our history. The word now connotes disagreeing with the left instead of what it actually means."
Although civil rights leaders say they do not expect -- or necessarily even want -- Obama to use the Sherrod episode to launch a dialogue on race, they say that it showed he still has work to do in one area: making sure that his own government reflects the country at large.
"I really believe there is an experience gap in this administration," a lack of diversity in its upper echelons, said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African American in Congress. "I really believe those kinds of experiences need to be shared at the highest levels of government."