The decision to fire Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod -- an action Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has now rescinded -- is clearly part of a larger debate about discrimination and racial sensitivity in the public sphere.
It's also evidence that hopes so often expressed during the 2008 presidential campaign that Barack Obama would lead the country into a "post-racial" future have thus far gone unrealized. The controversy has brought up complaints about past government discrimination against African-Americans and highlighted a feeling among some whites that the administration is biased against them.
In video posted online, Sherrod is seen recounting her thoughts that a white farmer who came to her for aid in 1986 should go seek help from "his own kind." But the clip initially posted by blogger Andrew Breitbart failed to show the larger context of her remarks, in which Sherrod described how she had overcome such sentiments.
Civil rights leaders called for Sherrod to be reinstated. And officials with black farmers associations pointed out the irony of the department -- which agreed to pay $1.25 billion in February to settle discrimination claims brought by thousands of African-American farmers -- being so quick to fire a black employee for making remarks that appeared hostile to whites.
"Here we have 80,000 black farmers that have been victimized by the Department of Agriculture," says John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, "and for the past 25 years no one at the department has been fired for racial discrimination."
Charges Of Anti-White Bias
But some conservatives see the Sherrod controversy as evidence of a different theme -- an administration bias against whites. In recent days, there has been a growing chorus of complaints about a Justice Department decision last year to scale back voter intimidation charges against members of the New Black Panther Party.
Jared Taylor, editor of American Renaissance, describes himself as a "race realist" and advocates abolishing immigration and anti-discrimination laws. He says it's clear that Sherrod's comments were taken out of context. Nonetheless, he says they tell an important tale.
"Practically nobody in America had trouble believing that this black employee of USDA would take this extremely race-based view," Taylor says. "That's the significance of this story. It seemed entirely plausible to most Americans that a black employee would have this view of how she should do her job."
Challenging Race-Based Policies
It's not a fantasy for whites to feel discriminated against by government policy, says George R. LaNoue, a political scientist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who studies civil rights cases. There are lots of government contracting and business programs for which white males need not apply, he says.
"It isn't just a feeling. In terms of government contracts, it's a fact," LaNoue says. "We're talking about lots of money, and billions of dollars at stake."
Whether affirmative action and minority contracting programs are good policy is another question, LaNoue says. But it's clear that they speak to a sense among some whites that they are victims of discrimination.
That is also evident in the numerous court challenges against minority hiring practices being brought by whites. Last year, in Ricci v. DeStefano, the Supreme Court found that white firefighters had been discriminated against by promotion policies in New Haven, Conn.
Whites Adopting Civil Rights Rhetoric
Some whites have adopted the rhetoric of the civil rights movement in complaining that they are being discriminated against. That has offended many traditional civil rights activists.
"You look at much of the rhetoric from white politicians from Sarah Palin on down, and it's all about the victimization of white men and the perceived victimization of white men in our culture," says Leonard Steinhorn, a communications professor at American University and co-author of a book about racial integration.
"For years, conservatives said, 'Stop acting like you're victims, black people,' " Steinhorn says, "but now it's conservatives who appear to be motivated by anger about their victimization."
Tea Party Tension
Steinhorn says that Breitbart's post about Sherrod's comments was "cynical," an attempt to use race to score points within a polarized debate. Breitbart himself has made clear that his target was not Sherrod but the NAACP. Sherrod made her remarks at an NAACP event.
Breitbart, like many conservatives, took offense last week when the civil rights organization approved a resolution calling on members of the Tea Party movement to "repudiate the racist element and activities" in their midst.
Party adherents insist that they are not motivated by race in protesting Obama's expansion of the size and scope of government.
"The president doesn't believe that the Tea Party is a racist organization," Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday on ABC's This Week.
Obama: Not Post-Racial
The fact that Biden weighed in on the NAACP-Tea Party dispute points up a source of frustration for the White House. Race is one of the Obama administration's least favorite topics, yet inevitably it keeps coming up.
Obama himself waded into the issue during the flap involving Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who complained about racial discrimination when he was arrested in his home by a Cambridge, Mass., police officer. Obama has twice this year held White House meetings with black leaders from the religious and political communities to discuss economic challenges faced by African-Americans.
For the most part, though, the White House has sought to address topics of universal concern, rather than concentrating on race.
"Obama and his aides were scarred by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy during the campaign, and then by the Gates blow-up early in Obama's term, and more recently the case of the Black Panthers," says Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "They are now understandably sensitive to the damage that racial incidents can do to the presidency of the first African-American president -- maybe too sensitive."
That sensitivity, Sabato suggests, may be why USDA officials were so quick to get rid of Sherrod before a fuller picture emerged.
One thing that everyone seems to agree on, despite the very different prisms through which they view and describe discrimination, is that the United States is still far from its "post-racial" future.
"We continue to deceive ourselves in America that the race issue has been settled," says Gary R. Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association.
"This notion that we're all going to hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya,' that's pure fantasy," says Taylor, the American Renaissance editor. "Racial loyalties are part of human nature." [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]