Las Vegas
The fifth annual Netroots Nation kicked off in Las Vegas on Thursday, as liberal bloggers and activists gathered to organize and assess an Obama administration that continues to disappoint key planks of the left. One of the first panels, scheduled months ago, could have been ripped from today’s headlines about Shirley Sherrod: "Fighting the Right Wing with Racial Justice."

James Rucker, the cofounder of a netroots civil rights organization, told attendees that media personalities like Glenn Beck had to be "undressed" and combated in a platform that they don’t actually control. Rucker lamented that racial provocateurs like Andrew Breitbart, who does submit to interviews with traditional journalists, manage to get free press while escaping factual accountability.

An early, unscientific sampling of liberal conference attendees suggested a sour mood for the politics of the day. Across the hallways of The Rio, a bright, off-strip hotel that is budget but clean, people seemed pretty fed up with the entire Sherrod imbroglio. While the administration’s mistreatment of Sherrod does not meet the scale of foreign policy or financial reform, of course, the rushed, reflexive capitulation to disingenuous opponents dovetails with a caricature of Obama’s governing playbook, at least among some progressives.

Back in the racial justice panel, several speakers cast the Sherrod attack as politics as usual in the Obama age.

Rich Benjamin, who traveled through some of the most concentrated Caucasian neighborhoods in America for his book "Whitopia," proposed that racial tension lurked behind many of the domestic policy debates of the Obama era. "The healthcare debate was explicitly about race," he said, stressing how Joe Willson’s "You Lie" outburst focused on tapping anger towards the false fear that the government would fund healthcare for minority immigrants. (Benjamin is a friend of mine, by the way.)

And all the panelists agreed that there is scant space for a genuine "national conversation" on race right now.

"White liberals are afraid to death," Rucker contended, to have frank conversations about resilient racial divisions in America.

Another panelist echoed Eric Holder’s supposedly controversial observation that America shies away from racial dialogue. Tammy Johnson, a community organizer with the Applied Research Center, declared that today’s leaders, and Obama by implication, do not have the guts to address race head-on.

One conference attendee pushed back on those sentiments, however, during the question and answer session.

Davey D, a disc jockey for Hard Knock Radio, stressed that many people and potential leaders talk about race in substantive ways—they simply do not garner mainstream media coverage. And the whole point of building a new media structure, he reminded fellow activists, was to cover and amplify new voices, not to lament the status quo.

If everyone had already forgotten that, he stressed, then "it’s time to have a conversation with yourself."