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.

John Bazemore / AP
Jimmy Carter.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”


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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