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Posted: 7/21/2010 12:45:08 PM EDT

The election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, was supposed to be a sign of our national maturity, a chance to transform the charged, stilted “national conversation” about race into a smarter and more authentic dialogue, led by a president who was also one of the nation's subtlest thinkers and writers on the topic.

Instead, the conversation just got dumber.

The America of 2010 is dominated by racial images out of farce and parody, caricatures not seen since the glory days of Shaft. Fox News often stars a leather-clad New Black Panther, while MSNBC scours the tea party movement for racist elements, which one could probably find in any mass organization in America. Obama’s own, sole foray into the issue of race involved calling a police officer “stupid,” and regretting his own words. Conservative leaders and the NAACP, the venerable civil-rights group, recently engaged in a round of bitter name-calling that left both groups wounded and crying foul. Political correctness continues to reign in parts of the left, and now has a match in the belligerent grievance of conservatives demanding that hair-trigger allegations of racism be proven.

“I thought we were going to move beyond this,” said Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative historian of race and a Bush appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who called the current racial climate “a catastrophe.”

“There’s a kind of heightened racial consciousness that’s very worrisome. It’s not good for us, it’s not good for the very fabric of American society,” she said, objecting in particular to the claims of racism against the tea party movement.

The turn toward racial farce drew an embarrassing, reactive reversal from the Obama administration Wednesday morning, as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack promised in a terse statement to reconsider the firing of Shirley Sherrod, his hitherto obscure Georgia director of rural development. In a video posted Sunday on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government website, Sherrod recounted a story in which she considered refusing a federal grant to a white couple based solely on race. The deceptively edited video seemed to present yet another racial stock figure turning her resentment into a kind of petty tyranny, and the Obama administration did not hesitate in demanding and receiving her resignation.

But an extended version of Sherrod’s speech suggested she was in fact preaching the exact opposite message. The story she was recounting had taken place more than two decades ago – and she was using it to tell a far more nuanced tale. She had, the white farmer from the anecdote emerged to testify, saved his farm. The line delivered just before the excerpt began introduced the anecdote as a lesson from God that “the struggle is really about poor people,” not race.

White House officials Tuesday pinned the decision to fire Sherrod on Vilsack, who said the appearance of the edited clip was — regardless of its actual meaning — simply too damning.

“The controversy surrounding her comments would create situations where her decisions, rightly or wrongly, would be called into question, making it difficult for her to bring jobs to Georgia,” he said in a statement.

The White House, an official said, backed Vilsack’s decision – drawing, in turn, mockery and outrage from both sides of the ideological spectrum, and a second reaction from the White House, where aides took credit for pressing Vilsack to back off.

“I am of course willing and will conduct a thorough review and consider additional facts to ensure to the American people we are providing services in a fair and equitable manner,” Vilsack said in a second statement.

“Above all else, it is hilarious to watch the White House scrambling out of fear for Andrew Breitbart,” wrote RedState.com founder Erick Erickson.

Liberal bloggers called for Vilsack to be fired instead of Sherrod.

And other observers simply shook their heads at the scramble to condemn Sherrod.

"What's striking to me about this Department of Agriculture fracas is that everyone was so quick to jump to conclusions: Someone reports a few ambiguous comments out of context and, before checking with the woman or getting the whole story, concludes: 'She's a racist!'" said Richard Ford, a law professor at Stanford and author of "The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse."

"This is the way race plays out all too often these days — as soon as the accusation of racism is made, good will, the benefit of the doubt, presumption of innocence all go out the window. It's seen as a virtue to jump to the least charitable conclusion when the issue is race — those who reserve judgment are accused of naivete or complicity," he said.

Though Obama’s candidacy was widely hailed as a new day for race in America, there were always dissenters, and the Sherrod episode seems to suggest the skeptics had a point. On the right, writer Ramesh Ponnuru warned against freighting Obama with too much racial baggage: “What if Obama becomes our first black president, and he comes to be seen as a failure in office?” he asked, calling the notion that voting for Obama would improve race relations “a risky gamble.”

Meanwhile on the left, some black leaders quietly worried that the election of a black president could fuel a racist backlash.

Obama – who called race “an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now” in his widely praised 2008 speech on the subject –– has responded largely by shrugging off that explicit racial conversation.

“He’s not the race man in chief in the way that he was before – and that’s understandable in many ways –– but these issues keep coming up,” said Farai Chideya, the former host of NPR’s “News and Notes,” which covered African-American issues. Chideya said she thought Obama’s 2008 speech on race, and on black and white grievances, had focused America’s conversation, but that it had since become incoherent.

“Some people are talking about economics. Some people are talking about feelings. Some people are talking about whether Obama is still charming. People are talking about different things.”

Obama has declined the pulpit Bill Clinton sought when he announced in 1996 that he would lead the country in a “national conversation” on race during what were, in retrospect, boom years for black Americans. One administration official, Attorney General Eric Holder, did briefly seek to revive that conversation in tougher times with a speech in the administration’s second month.

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," said Holder, the country's first black attorney general.

"Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race," he said. “If we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us."

Holder’s condemnation drew criticism from the right, and a quiet rebuke from a White House determined to avoid just such distractions. It hasn’t been repeated, even as charges of cowardice are thrown at the White House as a result of the Sherrod affair.

Veteran observers of America’s stilted racial dialogue differ on how it got to its current low. Breitbart, who has led the right’s charge, blames a civil-rights establishment accustomed to using allegations of racism as a partisan tool. He offered a reward for evidence that tea party protesters had used slurs against black members of Congress, as two members had claimed; none emerged.

Others believe that Obama’s election, with its implication that America was over its race problem, has paradoxically brought out the bigots.

“People who in the past would have been reluctant to express their feelings [now] feel free to do so,” said David Bositis, a senior research associate at the liberal Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

Others say that the current uproar is simply a symptom of the country’s enduring racial obsession – something only the naïve could have expected Obama to banish.

The recent public flaps “tell us that all the talk about post-racialness aside, the race question is still a burning question in American life. People will use it in all sorts of different ways. But it doesn’t surprise me,” said Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy, author of “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.”

Blair Kelley, a professor of history at North Carolina State University, put a similar observation more bluntly on Twitter Tuesday in response to this reporter’s inquiry.

“The ‘national conversation on race’ has always been this stupid,” she wrote. “Just much less frequent.”

Abby Phillip and Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.


Link Posted: 7/21/2010 12:54:14 PM EDT
Cause Oblamba was and is a con job
Link Posted: 7/21/2010 12:55:30 PM EDT
Cause Oblamba was and is a con job

Link Posted: 7/21/2010 1:00:22 PM EDT
and because there are folks whose very livelihood depends on racism real or imagined
Link Posted: 7/21/2010 1:06:47 PM EDT
To the Left race is nothing more than a tool they use to advance their agenda. Obama did it as well when he claimed people were fearful of him because he didn't look like the other Presidents on paper money.  They use it to attack any idea or person they don't like or are afraid of, such as the Tea Party movement.  And they'll attack anyone, white, black, brown or yellow.  Disagree with them and you're either a racist or a race traitor.
Link Posted: 7/21/2010 1:07:50 PM EDT
and because there are folks whose very livelihood depends on racism real or imagined

Ethnic Entrepreneurs. ala Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton
Link Posted: 7/21/2010 1:10:19 PM EDT
and because there are folks whose very livelihood depends on racism real or imagined

Ethnic Entrepreneurs. ala Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton

and all the little state and local level "activists" they have spawned
Link Posted: 7/21/2010 1:29:51 PM EDT
Interesting.  When I first watched the  Shirley Sherrod video, I was glad they had fired her.  I just went back to youtube, did a search, and found the un-cut version.  After watching the speech, while she's clearly a liberal that I disagree with on many fronts, firing her on racial grounds for this speech is ridiculous.  If that's all they got, she should get her job back immediately.  

Shame on foxnews and other media for not doing their homework before touting this error in the mainstream news.
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