The Obama White House is back to a teaching moment on race, once again playing the student.
This time, it tried so hard to steer clear of a black-white controversy that it wound up planting itself firmly in just that kind of a spectacle.
Now, President Barack Obama is trying to fix things with a mea culpa — offered through his spokesman — to ousted Agriculture Department worker Shirley Sherrod. But the incident proves that nearly halfway through his term as the nation's first black president, Obama is still struggling to strike the right balance between taking a stand on race and leading the country past it.
The Sherrod firestorm dragged Obama into an ill-timed debate this week that overshadowed what was supposed to be a high moment for him: signing a significant legislative accomplishment, Wall Street reform, into law. And the incident reinforced the damaging perception that his White House caves too quickly to criticism from the political right.
Sherrod certainly thinks so. She accused the administration of losing its backbone in pushing her out of her job, and hinted she may not come back.
Obama so far has refused to directly address Sherrod's plight, contrary to his own statements encouraging people to speak more openly about race. His silence leaves unclear whether this flap will fade or continue to steal focus from his message.
Will Obama step in and offer his voice?
"I wouldn't rule it out," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
But Gibbs didn't rule it in either.
Perhaps that's because a year ago — almost to the day — Obama was burned by his own misstep on race, wading into the uproar surrounding the arrest of black Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates outside his home by Sgt. James Crowley, a white police officer.
In that case, Obama admitted "I don't know all the facts," then proceeded to indict the Cambridge, Mass., police for acting "stupidly."
That rare, undisciplined gaffe created a backlash that also distracted attention from his signature proposal at the time, health care reform. Obama acknowledged he should have chosen his words better, and he convened his famous beer summit in an effort to turn the incident into a "teachable moment."
The latest uproar began when the flame-throwing conservative website BigGovernment.com posted a two-and-a-half-minute video clip of Sherrod's speech to a rural south Georgia NAACP banquet. The website's owner, Andrew Breitbart, said it showed that the NAACP condones racist elements, just as the civil rights group accuses the tea party movement of doing.
The full speech shows Sherrod was really talking about racial unity and redemption — about how she came to learn that whites were struggling just like so many blacks she knew.
In the Internet age, that context was lost. And with lightning speed, so was Sherrod's job.
Administration officials were so eager to keep the story off cable TV's round-the-clock news cycle that they had Sherrod pull her car over to the side of the road Monday and submit her resignation on her Blackberry.
Bedeviled by right-wing attacks of favoritism toward blacks, Obama's administration was in a hurry to deny his critics any more ammunition.
"That's the kind of thing the White House is certainly sensitive to," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "I think the desire to avoid conflict and accusations of racial insensitivity actually walked them into the very problem they were trying to avoid."
Even the NAACP jumped to conclusions, condemning Sherrod's remarks and supporting her resignation.
When the full story came out, they both had egg on their faces.
The NAACP quickly reversed itself, saying it was "snookered" by Breitbart — even though the speech happened at one of its own events.
The White House was slower to face reality. Still, less than a day after saying the president was not involved in Sherrod's ouster but supported it, the administration was apologizing to her effusively and trying to make amends with the offer of a new job. After having a little trouble reaching her, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivered his personal apology and said he should have done his own job better.
Speaking Wednesday about why Sherrod lost her job for no good cause, Gibbs had to come forward and say that "everybody involved made determinations without knowing all the facts."
Gibbs largely blamed that on a culture in which "things whip around. People want fast responses. We want to give fast responses."
And he added, "I think this is one of those teachable moments."