Barack Obama refuses to get sucked back into the media’s great American race war. Jimmy Carter upped the ante in the “You Lie” debacle by imputing a racist motivation to Joe Wilson’s remark. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs assured the press corp that President Obama does not share Mr. Carter’s view of the matter. When a string of reporters asked variants of the same question, Gibbs repeated his mantra.
The press doesn’t deal in the intricacies of the health care debate unless the issue can be framed as a good old he-said-she-said cat fight between ideological opposites. If Carter says Wilson is a racist the press scours the earth for a white guy willing to counter the assertion. In this case, they got Joe Wilson’s son to swear that his daddy doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.
You can’t blame Barack Obama for sitting this one out. The slightest hint that he shared Carter’s viewpoint would create several news cycles dominated by counter-assertions from the Right, demands for an apology and calls for impeachment. Thus far, the “Joe is a racist” debate has been dominated by Mr. Carter’s comment and rebutals from conservative opinion leaders like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh who accuse the left of using the “racist” label to stifle legitimate dissent.
This how-dare-you-call-me-a-racist argument plays well in Middle America, and for good reason. Millions of people voted for Hillary Clinton and John McCain in the last election cycle for entirely non-racial reasons. Logically and politically, the assertion that all opposition to Barack Obama is motivated by racial animus is a non-starter.
On the other hand, when you see folks waving rebel flags and hoisting posters featuring Mr. Obama with a bone in his nose it’s pretty clear that Jimmy Carter is on to something: a solid segment of the anti-Obama crowd can’t abide the notion of a black president.
How then do we distinguish between the racism and principled dissent?
Middle America has developed a simple metric: if you hear overtly racist rhetoric or see unambiguous and pejorative references to Africa, monkey’s and other crude racial stereotypes, you are dealing with a racist; otherwise, it is best to assume that race isn’t a factor.
A recent article on the Carter-Wilson dust-up in the New York Times was followed by the sort of partisan reader comments we have come to expect. Ironically, a Canadian reader captured the non-partisan mindset of Middle America. Here is her comment in its entirety:
There is no doubt plenty of racism in the U.S., and plenty aimed at Obama.
Still, no matter how rude, out of line, and downright wrong Rep. Joe Wilson was when he shouted “You lie!” at Obama during the latter’s recent speech, only Wilson knows what was going through his head at the time.
Jimmy Carter, no matter how well-intentioned he may have been when labeling the gibe racist, has no way of knowing whether Joe Wilson’s childish catcall was in fact “based on racism”. By stating that he believes it was, Carter did not contribute anything useful to the public forum.
Certainly, we need to combat racism, not to mention promulgate a reality-based world view in the U.S — something that seems increasingly rare here.
But unprovable accusations — no matter how tempting and possibly even correct they may be — do not promote any useful cause.
In other words, in the absence of unambiguous evidence, fair-minded citizens should avoid ascribing racist motives to political opponents.
The success of the Southern Strategy was rooted in the ubiquity of this common sense rule of thumb. So long as southerners defined themselves as small government, anti-socialist, southern heritage-affirming conservatives, Middle America welcomed them into the political mainstream. There is a certain genius to both progressive and conservative political and social philosophies and most Americans, myself included, believe that balanced, pragmatic social policy is shaped by a healthy give-and-take between sincere proponents from both camps.
President Obama is precisely the sort of bi-partisan pragmatist the American electorate has been willing to support. His race has little to do with it. John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, white boys all, won elections as moderate progressives who avoided ideological extremes.
That’s one reason we have made so little progress on heath care reform (but I digress).
What American president hasn’t been denounced, renounced and vilified by partisan opponents? Regardless of political affiliation, we all find it hard to live with a president who rejects many of most deeply cherished values. So shouldn’t we be cutting the conservatives some slack here? So what if Barack Obama is being compared to Adolf Hitler–what American leader hasn’t suffered the same fate?
Similarly, what American opinion leader, black, white or indifferent, hasn’t been accused of racism? Had Martin Luther King Jr. outlived the 1960s, the epithet would surely have been applied to him. So maybe we should just bury words like “race”, “racist” and “racism” and be done with it.
Many moderate Republicans and Democrats have embraced a color-blind orthodoxy rooted in the healthy-minded belief that Jim Crow bigotry died many moons ago and is unlikely to emerge from the grave.
The combination of color-blind optimism and “if-he-doesn’t-wear-a-hood-he-can’t-be-racist” naivete has been exploited by genuine bigots for decades.
Jimmy Carter has good reason to ascribe racial motivations to Joe Wilson’s latest outburst. Although Wilson worked hard to cultivate African American support in the early stages of his political career, moderate black leaders saw through the facade years ago. When a man maintains his membership in a group like the Sons of Confederate Veterans a decade after the organization adopts an unambiguously racist agenda questions must be asked. When a man fights to the death to keep the Confederate flag flapping over the state legislature it is legitimate to wonder why.
The face of American bigotry is rapidly evolving. South Carolina has had the fastest growing Latino population in American two years running. It is not coincidental that Wilson’s outburst was in response to the president’s promise that the undocumented would not be covered under his health bill. For years, Joe Wilson has allied himself with the most extreme, and openly racist, elements of the anti-immigration movement. Racism isn’t just a black-white thing anymore.
Is Joe Wilson merely insensitive to African American opinion or is he sending a dog whistle message to white voters who despise the civil rights movement and secretly wax nostalgic about a white-power southern heritage?
When we see Joe Wilson signing autographs for people who were thrilled by his rude interjection you have to question the sincerity of his apology.
When you see Republican politicians refusing to rebuke Wilson you wonder why they encouraged their errant colleague to apologize in the first place.
Strident and unapologetic support for white supremacy was the only politically viable position for southern politicians circa 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. Five years later, most southern schools were integrated as school boards bowed to the inevitable. Can we conclude that hearts and minds changed dramatically in the course of five years?
Nothing changed but the law. In 1965, politicians could shout their pro-white, anti-civil rights sentiments from the house tops–and were doomed to defeat if they didn’t. Five years later, these same men quietly eschewed overt racial rhetoric. Some became Republicans, others soldiered on as Democrats, but few changed their thinking on the race issue.
After twenty years of race-neutral rhetoric, Middle America started talking about the New South. Forty years later, it was time to celebrate a Color-Blind America.
Racial attitudes have changed. Public attitudes are shaped by political rhetoric. When kids grow up hearing the public vocabulary of racial pluralism their thinking is affected. Political correctness has political consequences. When white children see tributes to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks on television they get the message: pluralism is cool and bigotry sucks.
But political correctness is a superficial phenomenon. A political maestro like Ronald Reagan learned that by launching his 1980 presidential campaign up in Neshoba County (of Mississippi Burning infamy) and talking about “state’s rights” he could appeal to racist southerners while employing an ostensibly race-neutral political style.
Reagan mastered the art of political correctness.
There was a trade off. So long as politicians avoided incendiary racial rhetoric, the public assumed they were on the side of the color-blind angels.
White voters knew better. When a politician votes consistently for policies that damage poor communities and favor white suburbanites, overt racial references are redundant.
The Republican party is a complicated mix of New South pluralists, pro-business pragmatists, social and religious conservatives and unreconstructed racists (North and South). To tar such a diverse group as a pack of racists simply because they oppose the policies of the Obama administration is unfair, unkind and unwise.
But we dare not ignore obvious signs of bigotry and gross racial insensitivity.
The election of America’s first black president changed the political equation in profound and irreversible ways. Small government, pro-market conservatives may oppose health care reform for ideological reasons, but they stand elbow-to-elbow with mean-spirited zealots whose political vision has no place for non-whites and non-conservatives. We are witnessing a fundamentally undemocratic impulse.
Progressives may be doing most of the hair-pulling at this point, but sincere conservatives should be worrying too. If the Republican brand is defined by its least tolerant faction, the party will soon be confined to the deep South, the southern portions of Indiana, Ohio and Illinois and a few low-population Western states. You can’t win the White House with that kind of coalition.
Fortunately, there is an upside to our Summer of Hate. Realities long catalogued by groups like Hate Watch are gradually creeping into the national consciousness. The desire for a color-blind society is so strong that we risk becoming a hate-blind society. Recent developments, including Joe Wilson’s ill-tempered outburst, are a lighthouse beacon warning us away from the jagged rocks.