Op-Ed Columnist NY Times
You’ll Never Believe What This White House Is Missing
By MAUREEN DOWD Published: July 24, 2010
The Obama White House is too white.
It has Barack Obama, raised in the Hawaiian hood and Indonesia, and Valerie Jarrett, who spent her early years in Iran.
But unlike Bill Clinton, who never needed help fathoming Southern black culture, Obama lacks advisers who are descended from the central African-American experience, ones who understand “the slave thing,” as a top black Democrat dryly puts it.
The first black president should expand beyond his campaign security blanket, the smug cordon of overprotective white guys surrounding him — a long political tradition underscored by Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 when she complained about the “smart-ass white boys” from Walter Mondale’s campaign who tried to boss her around.
Otherwise, this administration will keep tripping over race rather than inspiring on race.
The West Wing white guys who pushed to ditch Shirley Sherrod before Glenn Beck could pounce not only didn’t bother to Google, they weren’t familiar enough with civil rights history to recognize the name Sherrod. And they didn’t return the calls and e-mail of prominent blacks who tried to alert them that something was wrong.
Charles Sherrod, Shirley’s husband, was a Freedom Rider who, along with the civil rights hero John Lewis, was a key member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the ‘60s.
As Lewis, the longtime Georgia congressman, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he knew immediately that something was amiss with the distorted video clip of Sherrod talking to the N.A.A.C.P.
“I’ve known these two individuals — the husband for more than 50 years and the wife for at least 35, 40 — and there’s not a racist hair on their heads or anyplace else on their bodies,” Lewis said.
We may not have a “nation of cowards” on race, as Attorney General Eric Holder contended, but we may have a West Wing of cowards on race.
The president appears completely comfortable in his own skin, but it seems he feels that he and Michelle are such a huge change for the nation to absorb that he can be overly cautious about pushing for other societal changes for blacks and gays. At some level, he acts like the election was enough; he shouldn’t have to deal with race further. But he does.
His closest advisers — some of the same ones who urged him not to make the race speech after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright issue exploded — are so terrified that Fox and the Tea Party will paint Obama as doing more for blacks that they tiptoe around and do less. “Who knew that the first black president would make it even harder on black people?” asked a top black Democratic official.
It’s the same impulse that caused Obama campaign workers to refuse to let Muslim women with head scarves sit in camera range during a rally. It’s the same impulse that has left the president light-years behind W. on development help for Africa. In their rush to counteract attempts to paint Obama as a radical/Muslim/socialist, Obama staffers can behave in insensitive ways themselves.
“I don’t think a single black person was consulted before Shirley Sherrod was fired — I mean c’mon, “ said Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina, a black lawmaker so temperate that he agreed with an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal on Friday by Senator James Webb of Virginia, which urged that “government-directed diversity programs should end.”
“The president’s getting hurt real bad,” Clyburn told me. “He needs some black people around him.” He said Obama’s inner circle keeps “screwing up” on race: “Some people over there are not sensitive at all about race. They really feel that the extent to which he allows himself to talk about race would tend to pigeonhole him or cost him support, when a lot of people saw his election as a way to get the issue behind us. I don’t think people elected him to disengage on race. Just the opposite.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s House delegate, agreed: “The president needs some advisers or friends who have a greater sense of the pulse of the African-American community, or who at least have been around the mulberry bush.”
And why does the N.A.A.C.P. exist if not to help clear a smeared champion of civil rights who gave a stirring speech about racial reconciliation at an N.A.A.C.P. banquet? Its president, Ben Jealous, shamefully following the administration’s rush to judgment, tweeted Monday night that Shirley Sherrod was a racist without even calling his Georgia chapter president or reviewing the N.A.A.C.P.’s own video of the speech.
It was Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist, who, after hearing the entire speech, pushed to get it out and helped clear Sherrod’s reputation on CNN.
The president shouldn’t give Sherrod her old job back. He should give her a new job: Director of Black Outreach. This White House needs one.