In an NBC news interview Jimmy Carter echoed what many people have been saying, both openly and in private, about the tone of the anti-Obama movement. The anger, indignation and out-of-control behavior displayed at the health care reform town hall meetings and tea parties, the association of Obama to Nazism, Marxism, Communism and any scary other ”-ism”, the ranting of right-wing commentators and the growing lack of respect and civility that is being shown towards the president are, according to Carter, representative of “an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president”. He also said that last week’s surprising and uncalled-for outburst by Southern congressman Joe Wilson during the president’s address to congress was “based on racism”.
Carter has seen America through some of its worst racial moments. If anyone should have a perspective on where the country is right now when it comes to these matters, he should. But is he right?
Well, he is certainly right that racism is alive and well in America – that it is being expressed through some parts of the anti-Obama movement, and that it is also sometimes disguised as opposition to Obama’s policies. But we must be careful not to label all those who disagree with the president as “racist”.
It has been difficult for many people to watch the recent goings-on and not to think that the sentiments that have been expressed go, as Carter also said, way beyond reasonable debate. The virulence of some anti-Obama sentiment is shocking and one wonders how it can be based on policy alone, when all the man says he wants to do is to ensure that all Americans have access to basic healthcare and that he wants to encourage bi-partisanship. (Of course, those are not the entirety of Obama’s policies, but they are the ones that people have apparently been railing against recently.)
Unfortunately, many people who have openly shared Carter’s view have been accused – either of seeing racism where it doesn’t exist, of being overly sensitive, or of trying to make white people feel guilty. And it is probable that Carter will be dismissed as a white liberal who also apparently feels the burden of white guilt.
WATCH CARTER’S COMMENTS
While it is unfortunate that those who call out racism are treated as badly, if not worse, than those who are actually racist, this does not make Carter’s points any less salient. Racism and/or racially motivated behavior is a problem for society, and pretending it doesn’t exist is no solution. It is clearer by the day that America’s racial problems are not healed.
It is disappointing that this is the case, considering that the election of the president was supposed to be a sign of progress in America’s attitudes towards race. But, in all honesty, we saw this coming. Remember the town hall meetings that John McCain hosted before the elections? How about the old woman who expressed how afraid she was because Obama looked likely to become president. That exchange resulted in John McCain, Obama’s then opponent, having to defend Obama’s honor. How about the man who said he feared for his unborn children if Obama became president?
John McCain and Sarah Palin gave us a preview of what’s happening now, with their linking of Obama to terrorism and terrorists, the suggestion that he was a foreigner and that he wasn’t one of “them”. Even Hillary Clinton insisted on playing on fears about Obama being “the other”. So even then – way before Obama was even elected – that feeling that Carter talks about was in evidence. It didn’t suddenly disappear on November 4th last year.
There is no doubt in my mind that some elements of the anti-Obama movement – particularly the birther movement – have racist undertones and that there are some Americans who don’t want a black man in the White House. The most vocal and high profile right-wing commentators – such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh – are certainly standing in as figureheads for those who don’t like the idea that a black man now runs the country.
The truth is, though, that there are many Americans who are strongly opposed to Obama’s policies. Some do genuinely disagree with his health care plan and believe that he wants to turn America into a mini-version of a European social democracy. There are those who are afraid that America will no longer be a capitalist country if Obama has his way. And those people, even if one doesn’t agree with them, should not be lumped into the racist box.
The problem is that right now, it is hard to know who is who. Those who genuinely do disagree with the president should discuss their opinions based on policy, not on codes that appear to carry racist implications. But there is certainly something ugly going on. And that needs to be discussed – and most importantly, confronted.