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Jimmy Carter racism charge triggers next US race debate

In asserting that some Obama foes are prejudiced, the ex-president rekindles a difficult discussion. The right sees it as a way to squelch legitimate opposition to administration policies.

By Staff writer / September 16, 2009


Former President Jimmy Carter’s assertion that racism is behind much of the political opposition to President Obama marks a stunning moment in America’s centuries-old racial drama.

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In essence, one of the nation’s political elder statesmen has joined a chorus of Democrats, liberal pundits, and mainstream media asserting that the “birther” movement, Tea Party protests, town hall raucousness, and Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” outburst reflect a “Southern strain” of Americans who can’t support an “uppity” black as chief executive.

Note the ensuing piping of steam from two of America’s base camps: The Southern-based Republican Party that says the Democrats are trying to shut down all opposition to the president by invoking racism, and Democrats such as comedian Bill Maher who say, “Finally, we’re talking about this.”

But how will it all play in Peoria – especially with the hordes of independents, many recent defectors from the Republican Party?

White House downplays role of race

So far, the reaction from the White House has been to downplay the role of race – an indication of real concern that too much name-calling could light a powder keg of opposition from a middle America that doesn’t see itself as racist. At his briefing Wednesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Mr. Obama doesn't think that criticism of his policies is "based on the color of his skin."

But it’s a conversation this former slave-holding nation may not be able to avoid, especially given 200 years of pent-up frustration, fueled by both real and perceived slights on a personal level for many Americans.

“In some sense, you are talking about people who are completely lost to the president, but will this make them dig in deeper? That could well be,” says Thomas Pettigrew, a social psychologist at the University of California-Santa Cruz, who studies American race relations. “But it could also bolster people who voted for Obama to further support him, because they’re saying, ‘I’m not racist.’ ”

To many liberals, Representative Wilson’s outburst while Obama was addressing Congress marked the opening of long-held beliefs that opposition to Obama – despite his presidential victory – has much to do with the fact that he’s black.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said Wilson could easily have tacked on the word “boy” to his “You lie” yell, pointing out his ties to the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

She quoted Don Fowler, a South Carolina political scientist, as saying, “My father used to say to me, ‘Boy, don’t get above your raising.’ Some people are prejudiced anyway, and then they look at [Obama’s] education and mannerisms and get more angry at him.”

Rep. Hank Johnson (D) of Georgia went much further. He said Wilson’s subtle support of racist attitudes, if not rebuked, could spark people donning “white hoods again and riding through the countryside.”