As expected, within a day of Jimmy Carter blaming racism for "an overwhelming portion of the intentionally demonstrated animosity toward Barack Obama," politicians — including many Democrats — began rushing to rebut the notion.
On the Republican side, Michael Steele has written an op-ed for Politico, in which he says, "As an African American, I know what racism is and that is not racism." I can't dispute that Michael Steele has an experience of racism that I, as a white woman, have no clue about. But I certainly can dispute his logic when he says, "It is becoming increasingly clear that some in the Democratic Party need a serious history lesson. Slavery was racist, Jim Crow laws were racist, segregation was racist – opposing a radical political agenda is not."
Without even getting into the implication that if it's not as bad as slavery and segregation, it doesn't count as racism, let me say I agree with Steele that opposing a radical political agenda is not an intrinsically racist act. The problem with his framing here is that our president does not have a radical political agenda. Our president is, in fact, a centrist who's increasingly pissing off his progressive base. The notion that he's a secret socialist, or that a health care reform proposal designed to increase market competition and regulate only the most monopolistic and downright evil business practices is somehow radically anti-capitalist, is pure bullshit. And it's pure bullshit intended to stoke the fears of those voters already predisposed to assume they cannot trust the president. That mistrust is, of course, largely a function of decades of Republican deception about Democrats in general, but the suggestion that racism is not playing a crucial role in arousing baseless suspicion of the current president is an expression either of willful ignorance or craven politicking. I'm going with number two.
And that goes for the Democrats as well. I can understand perfectly well why white Dems up to and including my beloved senator Dick Durbin are all over the news this morning saying, "Racism isn't the issue at hand, nothing to see here, move along folks." I can understand why Obama is distancing himself from Carter's assertions. Because discussing race makes white people fucking crazy. (Be assured that I include myself in that.) We don't want to examine how racism operates systematically, regardless of whether we as individuals use the N-word or have friends of color. What we want is reassurance that we are good people — and that good people by virtue of their very goodness will never, consciously or unconsciously, behave in racist ways or perpetuate racist systems. So politically, it's wise for Dems from Obama on down to offer that reassurance to the white electorate. There's a mid-term coming up and all.
But those of us who aren't running for office should still be taking this opportunity to discuss why that's the politically savvy move even for liberals, why we crave that reassurance more than an open discussion of racism, why we automatically give the benefit of the doubt to the person saying, "There's no bigotry here" instead of the one saying, "You know, I think there is." Or why we keep making arguments like, "Oh, all of this has happened/would happen to a white president, so it's not racist" without acknowledging that it's impossible to make a useful comparison when our sample size of presidents of color is 1. Why is the default assumption that white people are not behaving in racist ways — again, consciously or unconsciously — when we live in a country that has only had equal rights on paper for a generation? Not to mention a country where the latest meme about Joe Wilson's outburst is that Obama started it — by being a poor guest. (Here in the Midwest, we also prioritize being a gracious host, but maybe etiquette's different in South Carolina.)
Thankfully, Jimmy Carter is not running for reelection, which means he's not shutting his big, fat, beautiful mouth on this subject. Yesterday, he continued his commentary about race and racism, telling students at Emory University in Atlanta:
When a radical fringe element of demonstrators and others begin to attack the president of the United States as an animal or as a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler or when they wave signs in the air that said we should have buried Obama with Kennedy, those kinds of things are beyond the bounds.
I think people who are guilty of that kind of personal attack against Obama have been influenced to a major degree by a belief that he should not be president because he happens to be African American. It's a racist attitude, and my hope is and my expectation is that in the future both Democratic leaders and Republican leaders will take the initiative in condemning that kind of unprecedented attack on the president of the United States.
It's not racism, it's being an American [Politico]
In the race from race, Democrats rebut Jimmy Carter [Politico]
New GOP Meme On Joe Wilson: Obama Started It! [TPM]
Carter again cites racism as factor in Obama's treatment [CNN]