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Confederate History Month fight: Obama rebukes Virginia governor

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The president's statements, made to ABC News correspondent George Stephanopoulos, were an unusually harsh rebuke – reminiscent of his first comments on the controversial arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. last summer at his home in Cambridge, Mass.

Obama's entry into the debate about the Confederate legacy shows that the president, though careful, speaks his mind about race when he feels it's warranted. Indeed, says one expert on race in America, the subject of race becomes ripe for discussion after certain events.

"Race has been just beneath the surface of recent politics. So I think it's healthy to every once in a while get [someone like McDonnell] to set something up so it can be made explicit in a very safe context," says Thomas Pettigrew, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "In other words, [race] is sort of the elephant in the room: No one wants to mention it, but every once in a while something comes along to make it possible to mention it."

But the damage has already been done, apparently: Blowback from Confederate History Month could affect McDonnell's national political aspirations, writes The Washington Post. And many black Americans took offense – not at the overall historical debate, but at McDonnell's original proclamation. As Mr. Pettigrew says, "The original statement by the governor sounded like, oh, what a terrible thing it was that the South lost and the implication that we couldn't still have slavery."

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