Sensational accusations of racism propagated by the far-right are depriving America of the chance to talk about more substantial issues like poverty and education, prominent racial scholars said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"The Obama administration has been intimidated by the far-right wing, which is addicted to a kind of paranoia of race that then leads to paralyzing racial conversation," Rev. Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and an author of many books on African-American issues, said. "There's no word from the White House that's positive about the issue of race."
The debate over the Shirley Sherrod controversy - in which the former Agriculture Department official was forced to resign after conservative blogger Andrew Breibart posted an out-of-context video of her commenting on race - is distracting from high joblessness among young black adults and a disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison.
More on the Shirley Sherrod story:
Sherrod Speaks Out
Obama Apologizes to Shirley Sherrod
Breitbart Stands Behind Sherrod Video
Breitbart: Sherrod "Sees Things Through Racial Prism"
Dyson: White House Pressured on Sherrod
He added that the Tea Party movement has subjected President Barack Obama to absurd scrutiny over his birth certificate and portraying him "as an African witch doctor," and that the far-right is an opposition that has "no interest in principled dialogue."
But Abigail Thernstrom, the vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, disagreed with Dyson's view of the Tea Party.
"A Gallup poll has shown the Tea Party movement is completely representative of America," Thernstrom pointed out.
Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund backed Thernstrom's view by quoting one of her predecessors, Mary Frances Berry, former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under President Bill Clinton. Berry, who is now a sociology and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, had said in an online discussion on Politico that "tainting the tea party movement with the charge of racism is proving to be an effective strategy for Democrats. There is no evidence that tea party adherents are any more racist than other Republicans, and indeed many other Americans. But getting them to spend their time purging their ranks and having candidates distance themselves should help Democrats win in November. Having one's opponent rebut charges of racism is far better than discussing joblessness."
"We have 9.5-percent unemployment, 50-percent teenage black unemployment. There are a lot of issues to discuss in this table," Fund said.
Another celebrated academic and civil rights activist, Cornel West, who teaches at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, did not jump into the debate about the merits of the Tea Party.
Instead, he agreed with Fund that focus should be shifted to issues such as poverty, prison and education. He said the Obama administration cannot afford to let racial tension build.
"When you put the focus on the suffering and allow blacks and whites and reds and browns to come together to focus on the suffering, that's how the temperature goes down," West said.
But Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson - who in a piece this week called "Signs of Sanity from the Tea Party," said that a lot of racial controversies show that "too many Americans are searching for excuses to justify their rage" - told host Bob Schieffer that the media is making it look like there's a crisis of race "when in fact these are incidents in America."
"It could be a picture at a Tea Party rally of a single sign. It could be … a video," Gerson said.
West countered that there is a racial crisis in America, just that it is manifested in poverty, prisons and the school system.
Dyson said the problem is that President Obama is not addressing the issue.
"I think the unfortunate reality is that there's a kind of gag order imposed on the Obama White House when it comes to issues of race," Dyson said. "There's an understandable lamentation among the Obamanites that, look, we don't want to pigeonhole ourselves into the corner of race, so to speak. But at the same time what is sacrificed is clear and decisive action on behalf of, I think, valuable principles of racial negotiation.
"Which means that we have to tell the truth about race."