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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.

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Mr. Carter added perhaps the most serious charge on Tuesday when he said, “I live in the South and I’ve seen the South come a long way.” But, the former president added, “I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people not just in the South but around the country … that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It’s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply.”

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Republican leaders strongly reject the charge

GOP chairman Michael Steele (who is African-American) called Carter’s comments “an outrage” and said opposition to Obama is based on policy, not race.

Meanwhile, conservatives see a different kind of proof of a hardening of racial attitudes. They point to Kanye West’s ripping the microphone out of white-dressed Taylor Swift at the MTV awards, which caused country singer John Rich to comment on Sean Hannity’s show last night, “He’s lucky there weren’t some good old country boys in the audience that night.”

The beating of a white teenager on a St. Louis bus, by two black teens, didn’t help, sending Rush Limbaugh into paroxysms on his Tuesday show. (Authorities backed off early assertions that the attack was racially motivated, calling it an argument over a seat.)

“Let's just follow [US Attorney General] Eric Holder’s advice and not be cowards about all this. Let’s have an open conversation, an honest conversation about all of our typical white grandmothers. You had one, I had one. Obama had one. They’re racists just like our students are,” Mr. Limbaugh said on his show.

But the notion has infuriated many conservatives who see the “race card” played too easily by liberals. Even those who say America is still far from “postracial” worry about overusing the racism charge. “Racism is a very strong word and is thrown around too much and too easily,” says Mr. Pettigrew.

Playing the 'race card' could fuel further opposition to Obama

Cornell University law Prof. William Jacobsen wrote in a commentary that such accusations will only fuel opposition to the president, because many Americans see it as part of a tactic to shut down opposition in order to change core American principles.

“While the false accusation of racism is not a new tactic, it has been refined by Obama supporters into a toxic powder which is causing damage to the social fabric of the country by artificially injecting race into every political issue,” Mr. Jacobsen writes. “We are seeing for the first time a strong push-back against the race-card players. And that reaction is visceral, much like an allergic reaction, from people who have been stung before.”

To be sure, says Pettigrew, there is some truth to the idea that at least a part of the American electorate – especially some in the old reactionary South that the Republican Party has successfully energized over the past three decades – may harbor some animosity towards an African-American president.

But rather than racism, “I call it a subtle prejudice,” he says. “The general idea is that people who don’t recognize it in themselves look for legitimate means to carry out their subtle beliefs, sometimes even without awareness on their part that they’re doing it.”

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Is there a better way to talk about race?
Things America learned from the torrid national discourse over the recent Gates-Crowley flap.

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