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Obama Needs Race Staff in the White House, Say Some Civil Rights Leaders

Hazel Trice Edney | 8/13/2010, 12:38 p.m.

The administration of President Barack Obama is missing a key element that has proven a detriment to America's growth since he has been in office. That element is a staff presence to deal with the rancorous issues related to race in America.

That is the sentiment of at least three seasoned civil rights warriors who say the cases of former Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod; the advent of racial elements within the Tea Party Express; the uprising following the Oakland, Calif. subway shooting trial of Oscar Grant; and the Arizona racial profiling and immigration protests are among daily issues that graphically illustrate a dire need for White House intervention on the race issue.

Some even say the President is "skittish" or "timid" on race and has neglected the need for policies and procedures that could help quell controversies or abate them in advance.

"In general I think that if they had developed in the administration, a better and more comprehensive way of dealing with racial matters, they would have handled this differently," says Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. She was talking about the forced Sherrod resignation as it relates to the overall handling of race matters by this White House.

"I think that they're skittish. They continue to be too skittish on issues that directly implicate race relations, racial interactions, racial intolerance, racial conflict. They have not figured out how to handle those matters well. That's why they continue to stumble on these matters."

Arnwine continues, "I think the fact that they have no veteran civil rights expert in the administration, that's a problem. They have Black people. They have other people of color, but they really don't have a person who really know the civil rights community well, who understands our history, our role, our aspirations. They have people with some experience, but they're not in those roles."

Former Tennessee Circuit Court Judge and civil rights activist D'Army Bailey agrees.

"The lesson here is that we have to keep pressures on the White House. We cannot take for granted that just because we have an African-American president that the sensitivity is going to be there," says Bailey, founder of the National Civil Rights Museum in the old Memphis' Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968. He is also author of a new book, The Education of a Black Radical, which chronicles his own civil rights history.

"I know that in the Oval Office, there is a bust of Dr. King. I have no concern about this president's Blackness. But, his timidity when it comes to the tough issues of race, that does concern me," Bailey says. "And, apparently, some of those people who he has as his key advisors in the White House are not people who've got that steely resolve to stand up when the going gets tough and to stand up for the principles of Blackness - not as a racial matter - but as a fairness to Black people and fight for us."

Bailey adds, "Every person of an ethnic group who comes into a position of leadership anywhere in the world carries with them - necessarily - the unique feelings, aspirations and interests of that ethnic group and ought not to run from it or be fairer than thou with regards to the issues of serving that people."
President Obama has spoken strongly on race.

Even last week during the National Urban League 100th Anniversary Conference, he spoke strongly on the Sherrod case, receiving applause when he said, "The full story she was trying to tell -- a story about overcoming our own biases and recognizing ourselves in folks who, on the surface, seem different -- is exactly the kind of story we need to hear in America."

He has also received rousing standing ovations at the NAACP's centennial conference in New York and at the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference last year. At these functions, he speaks almost predominately on issues from a race perspective. But, some say that just speaking on the issues are not enough.

Others disagree that President Obama should take leadership in dealing with America's race issues. Among those is Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.

"I don't think it's as important for the president to lead us in these discussions as it is for us to address some of these issues personally," says Ogletree, who just last year, represented Black Harvard professor, Skip Gates, in his run-in with a White Cambridge police officer. The public debacle ended with a so-called "beer summit" at the White House.

With African-American representatives from every segment of "an increasingly divisive society," Ogletree says, "at some point we need to realize that this movement starts from the bottom up."

He adds that Blacks who are economically able should personally concentrate on helping others. This must happen outside the White House, he said.
"We have to have our own new Black renaissance movement," Ogletree says. "And we have to be much more focused on the unity of us all."

But, Dr. Ron Walters, a political analyst and racial politics expert, says because of the gravity of the race issue in America and the fact that the problem is prone to grow, the issue must be dealt with by the White House.

"There needs to be, in the White House structure, someone with credibility to handle outreach to the Black community. I'm talking about the staff. He's given that to Valerie Jarrett. But, nobody knows who Valerie Jarrett is," Walters says. "The second thing is that his staff needs to respect race as a dynamic issue in American society and culture and politics that will confront them at every step of the way.

This is not a side issue. It is the most dynamic issue in American society and he is Black, which means his approach to it has to have the same respect as other issues" - with staffing and experts.

Arnwine, who has participated in issues meetings at the White House, says the President is never there.

"So, that means that everything we say; everything we try to communicate is getting filtered by somebody else's voice to him," Arnwine said. Clinton was different in that he would often show up and even disagree with his staff and side with civil rights leaders, she described.

Instead, she says, the Obama administration has "a lot of people who believe that it is their duty to protect the president. I think that's one of the problems - that they've insolated him. ... Therefore you get this interaction where nobody can tell you what they're going to do. They can't commit to anything."

Notwithstanding the need for a person or staff on race, Bailey says, there are other steps Obama can take to at least connect more with the Black community.

"He has to work harder to avoid the isolation of the White House and connect with the hard-felt sentiments of the people in the streets," Bailey says. "Just like he's vacationed in Florida and in the Gulf to show his empathy, he's got to come off the vineyard and get out into the community and feel those people too and relax and vacation."


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