Is Race A Factor In Protests Of Obama Initiatives?

How much of a role does race play in the ferocious resistance to President Obama in some quarters this spring and summer? Many African Americans sense a lack of respect in some of the president's critics.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Over the weekend, tens of thousands of conservatives marched in Washington protesting the health care proposals before Congress and other initiatives of the Obama administration. Their complaints included taxes and the government's bailout of banks last winter. But some black Americans have sensed another element fueling the anger of the crowd - a sense of refusal to accept an African-American in the White House. Joining us to discuss the controversy is NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, there has always been vocal opposition to any president, especially when he pushes a new and really different agenda. What would you say is different about the pushback that this particular president is facing?

WILLIAMS: I think there's a perception that being called a liar during a speech before the joint session of Congress is unprecedented, Renee. If fits with a pattern that lots of black Americans - and I might say it's also on Hispanic radio around the country - perceived as sort of a lack of basic acceptance of the stature that's to be accorded any president, a question of his legitimacy.

And that pattern includes things like - was he really born in the United States? Does he - what's he going to say to our schoolchildren? Should he speak to schoolchildren? The suggestion that socialism is his real agenda. This undercurrent, I think, is sparking a great deal of anxiety about the way that he is treated as being distinct from any president before, and of course he's the first black president.

MONTAGNE: And now, has this been around all year, since President Obama was elected or inaugurated, or is there something really different about recent days?

WILLIAMS: Well, there was an undercurrent, but in recent days the episode with Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouting out, You lie, as Obama was speaking to the joint session has really exacerbated that anxiety, and it's led to this notion that there is disrespect, even condescension, in the way that Obama is being treated as compared to any other president of the United States.

And it's also then, I think, led to lots of discussion of whether or not there's a greater chance of Obama being physically attacked, assaulted. This was heightened, of course, by people who were bringing guns to some of the August and other tea party events, you know, to express opposition to President Obama's policies.

MONTAGNE: Now, this view is opposite in many ways of what conservatives - and how they see it. You know, they've been saying all along that President Obama escapes a lot of criticism and scrutiny precisely because he's the first black president.

WILLIAMS: Exactly right, Renee. I mean, he's been portrayed as the media darling, treated as the so-called, quote, "messiah," by so many in the press, and therefore in the opinion of many conservatives, not properly scrutinized, that many of his policies and actions have simply been accepted. And now the conservative argument is that they're being censured, that any criticism of President Obama is being treated as evidence of racism without any evidence of such.

Congressman Wilson, though, is a Southerner. He's been out raising money, riding a wave of anti-Obama feeling. Yesterday he was the first Republican speaker on the floor. And he didn't apologize, but instead hailed as patriots people who'd been attending August town hall meetings in opposition to what he called a government takeover.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

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