Sliver of Racism

Posted Sept. 20, 2009, at 6:22 p.m.

Former President Jimmy Carter, a native son of the South, has said what many supporters of President Barack Obama have muttered to themselves — racism is driving some of the raging anger directed at the president. It is important to make the distinction that Mr. Carter made, which may be lost in cable TV and talk radio reduction, that racism is responsible for some, not all, of the anger.

South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, who shouted “You lie!” at the president during his address to the joint session of Congress last week, may be exhibit A, though Mr. Carter did not make the connection. Rep. Wilson, a Republican, belonged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans group and fought to keep the Confederate flag flying over the state capitol in Columbia. He also said that a black woman’s claim to be the daughter of 1948 segregationist presidential candidate Sen. Strom Thurmond — later proved true — was a “smear.”

And interestingly, the statement the congressman claimed was a lie had to do with illegal immigrants.

Only Mr. Wilson can know what motivated his outburst. But in trying to make sense of the extreme anger that Mr. Obama has drawn — a president who won the election comfortably and who continues to enjoy high favorability ratings from the public — racism must be confronted as part of its cause.

Many Americans disagree with the president’s policies and fear he will usher in cataclysmic changes to the nation’s democratic traditions. Never mind that President George W. Bush’s policies — the Patriot Act’s affront to the Fourth Amendment, warrantless wire taps, executive signing statements that amounted to defiance of Congress — treaded more heavily on the Constitution than anything Mr. Obama has done or proposed. Even if the anger is fanned by misinformation spread through conservative commentators on radio and television, Americans have the right to oppose the Obama agenda and to express that disagreement with great gusto.

But if we accept the premise that racism still exists in this country, then it likely would express itself against this president. For some people, racism is a dominating force in their thinking. For others, it is a sliver of prejudice, a shadow that passes over the mind when logic and facts should hold sway. It is not a stretch to believe that resentment toward the first black president would manifest itself.

No one can claim to be free of prejudice against certain groups of people. For some, it is a hatred of the rich and privileged, which probably manifested itself in opposition to the last president. But that impulse must be resisted. And when it rears its head, it must be called what it is.

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