WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said Thursday he was troubled by racially insensitive comments attributed more than a decade ago to a woman the Bush administration has tapped for a top State Department job and threatened to block her nomination until his concerns were addressed.
Henrietta Holsman Fore, who is the director of the U.S. Mint, was nominated to be the Under Secretary of State for Management. The position oversees human resources and the civil rights office for State Department employees around the world.
The comments came to light Thursday during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Obama pressed Fore to explain remarks she gave during a question-and-answer session following a 1987 speech at Wellesley College.
At the time, news accounts of the speech reported that Fore suggested blacks preferred pushing drugs to working in factory jobs and that Hispanic workers were lazy. The remarks were misunderstood, Fore said, but she resigned as a Wellesley trustee to quell the controversy at the college.
In the Senate hearing on Thursday, Obama questioned Fore about the racial comments for more than 20 minutes, repeatedly pressing for an explanation of the remarks.
When her answers did not satisfy him, Obama said he wondered what type of environment she would create for black, Hispanic and employees of other racial backgrounds if she held a “stereotypical notion of how various people performed.”
“I’m troubled by these statements,” Obama said. “I’m troubled by the lack of clarity.”
At the time she delivered the speech to students at her alma mater, she was running a manufacturing business in California and her comments were about the challenges she faced hiring workers.
Fore, who then was known as Henrietta Holsman, wrote a letter to the student newspaper at Wellesley about three weeks later saying she had been misunderstood and she had “pressed on to hire black workers.”
“Sadly, none of them have stayed with the company, but in their words wanted to go ‘back to the street’ to earn more money,” she wrote. “My comments referred only to these few individuals in my experience and not to the black community as a whole.”
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