WASHINGTON — The Obama administration scrambled on Wednesday to defuse a racial furor, profusely apologizing to an ousted black Agriculture Department employee and offering her a unique new position at the agency.
The incident is the latest in a series of race-related issues that have commanded national attention since President Barack Obama took office as the first African-American president.
Obama’s race has been a backdrop throughout his 1 1/2-year-old presidency.
Even today, there are questions raised periodically about his qualification for the presidency by people who contend he was born outside the United States rather than in Hawaii, despite a birth certificate and newspaper reports offered as proof of his natural-born status as required by the U.S. Constitution.
In the Agriculture Department flap, the fired employee, Shirley Sherrod, says she is considering the job offer.
“They did make an offer,” she said. “I just told him I need to think about it.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters that Sherrod accepted his apology. He said, “She was extraordinarily gracious.”
Vilsack announced the job offer as he profusely apologized for forcing Sherrod’s resignation, based on video excerpts edited by a conservative group and posted on the Internet. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had apologized earlier in behalf of the administration. Gibbs said the administration had acted without knowing all the facts about the video.
In the video, Sherrod related an experience 24 years ago, when she worked for a private organization, in which she had appeared to have discriminated against a white farmer. The unedited video made clear that Sherrod had helped the farmer and in the tape was relating the experience at a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to illustrate that race should never be considered in dealing with others.
The story moved from the Internet to Fox News Channel on Monday night. Host Bill O’Reilly showed a brief portion of Sherrod’s speech where she talked about withhholding “the full force” of her efforts.
“Wow,” O’Reilly said after the clip aired. “That is simply unacceptable and Ms. Sherrod must resign. The federal government cannot have skin colour deciding any assistance.” Fox’s Sean Hannity aired the same short snippet of Sherrod’s speech and said that “this was racist.”
“This was at an NAACP dinner and this was racist,” Hannity said.
By Wednesday, Fox’s focus shifted to accusing the Obama administration of rushing to judgment.
It was one year ago that Obama himself caused a racial stir with a comment that police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “acted stupidly” by arresting Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. as he tried to open the front door of his home.
White police officers had answered a report of a possible break-in at Gates’ home, found no burglar but arrested the black professor.
Obama calmed that furor by acknowledging that he could have chosen his words better, and he invited Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, to the White House for a beer.
In the Sherrod case, Vilsack was asked whether he had spoken with Obama about the situation. He said simply, “No.”
“This is a good woman,” Vilsack said. “She’s been put through hell.”
Sherrod resigned this week as state director of rural development in Georgia.
Gibbs called the dismissal an injustice and a mistake.
Gibbs said Obama has been briefed as the situation developed. Earlier, a White House official said Obama had not spoken with Sherrod about the controversy.
The White House called the Agriculture Department about the case Tuesday night and it was agreed that her removal should be reviewed because of new evidence.
Gibbs said people in the administration and outside it acted without all the facts.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a prominent civil rights leader, had demanded that the administration apologize for Sherrod’s treatment.
He said the case is even “more egregious” than the Gates controversy.