Senior official was forced to resign after a misleadingly edited speech caused outrage.

The White House has been forced to make an embarrassing U-turn after it appeared to have acted rashly in approving the sacking of a senior African-American official who was being targeted by a controversial Right-wing blogger.

The Obama administration had initially supported the decision of Tom Vilsack, the Agriculture Secretary, to force the resignation of Shirley Sherrod after a misleadingly edited version of a speech she gave in March caused outrage on the internet. The edited clips, put out by Andrew Breitbart of the conservative site BigGovernment.com, who has worked with the leading Right-wing blogger Matt Drudge, gave the impression that Ms Sherrod, the department's head of rural development in the southern state of Georgia, had boasted about having discriminated against a white farmer 24 years ago.

But when the full footage of the speech was released hours later, it became clear that she was recounting the story as a parable for why every poor person deserved to be helped equally, whatever their race.

In the wake of the full tape becoming available, the White House said the case should be looked at again. Mr. Vilsack, who initially had said his department had a “zero tolerance for discrimination”, also made a startling volte face, promising a “thorough review to ensure to the American people we are providing services in a fair and equitable manner”.

But by then the damage had been done, with the White House and a key department having apparently acted in haste to force out of office a senior African-American woman at the whim of Right-wing pundits.

To make matters more politically incendiary, it became clear that Mr. Breitbart had put together the edited clips in order to hurt the NAACP, America's largest civil rights organisation, to whom Ms Sherrod had delivered her remarks. The NAACP last week locked horns with the Tea Party movement of disaffected Right-wingers, accusing it of tolerating bigotry. Mr. Breitbart has admitted he put out the Ms Sherrod video to “show you that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones”.

As the furore swirled, Eloise Spooner, the wife of the white farmer in question, came to Ms Sherrod's defence, saying “we probably wouldn't have our farm today if it hadn't been for her.” Ms Sherrod said she was ordered to resign by Mr. Vilsack's deputy, Cheryl Cook, while she was on a long drive, and was even ordered to pull over on the side of the road and send in her resignation by Blackberry. “The administration were not interested in hearing the truth. No one wanted to hear the truth,” she told CNN.

This is not the first time the Obama team has become entangled in issues of race. In July last year, Mr. Obama himself waded into the controversy surrounding the arrest of the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., initially criticising the police but later retracting the comments. The saga also embarrassed the NAACP, which was also over-hasty in judging Ms Sherrod, telling Fox News that it repudiated “racists in our ranks”. After seeing the full video, it said it had been “snookered” into misinterpreting her views. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

Keywords: White Houseracism

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