By DeWayne Wickham
Jimmy Carter is getting a bum rap.
The former Democratic president is being derided for saying racism is the driving force behind the mounting personal attacks on President Barack Obama.
“I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is black... racism still exists and 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 country,” Carter said during an interview with NBC News anchor Brian Williams.
Carter was quickly accused of generally branding opponents of Obama’s policies as racists, but he made no such blanket assertion. His slam was directed at a much smaller group of people — those who have made Obama the target of personal attacks.
Carter was talking about the knuckleheads carrying signs that say, “The zoo has an African and the White House has a lyin’ African,” or “‘Cap’ Congress and ‘Trade’ Obama back to Kenya!” — or the morons who sent out post cards showing the White House lawn as a watermelon patch, and those who created images suggesting Obama is a monkey.
If Carter didn’t make this distinction clearly enough to Williams, he addressed the issue a day later during an appearance in Atlanta, Ga.
“When a radical fringe element of demonstrators and others begin to attack the president of the United States of America as an animal, or a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, or when they wave signs in the air that say we should have buried Obama with Kennedy... 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.”
On this point, Carter is right.
Too many of his critics were quick to say he was generally condemning most whites as racists, when in fact his condemnation was very narrowly drawn. Too many people were quick to all but dismiss race as a factor in the attacks Obama has weathered.
Too few of Carter’s critics were willing to concede that while most of those who differ with Obama do so for strongly held-ideological reasons, some are cold-blooded racists who simply can’t stand to have a black man at this nation’s helm.
Had the former president, who will soon be 85, chosen his words better, the racial flap he unleashed might have been avoided. It also could have been averted if Williams had asked a follow-up question to elicit a more precise explanation of what Carter meant.
But in this supposed “post-racial era,” the most damning thing someone can do is call someone else a racist. Such talk makes people uncomfortable, even if it rings true. Asked by The New York Times to react to Carter’s allegation, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said that while the nation is not “racially pure,” he thought that “constantly talking about (race) and reducing everything to black versus white is not helpful to the cause of restoring civility to our public dialogue.”
Powell’s position seems to reflect the national mood, which Carter breeched when he called the racists among Obama’s critics what they really are — racists. And for this, Carter has gotten a bum rap.