Racial Overtones At Anti-Obama Events

Washington, D.C., residents both white and black are expressing concern about perceptions of racism in some of the anti-Obama fervor at recent public events.

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A former president calls it racism, the current president disagrees. Critics of President Obama say it's only his plans and policies they oppose. But many people of color and some whites are saying opposition to the nation's first black president arises from a deeper place, what former President Jimmy Carter has called a racist attitude.

As NPR's Allison Keyes reports that's become an angry part of an already angry debate.

ALLISON KEYES: First, there were the protestors.

(Soundbite of crowd)

KEYES: They flocked health care town halls last month and to the nation's capital last weekend. Some carry confederate flags, others brandished pictures of the president in white face, like the comic book villain the Joker. They talked about taking their country back. Former President Jimmy Carter, a man born and raised in the South who has spoken out against racial discrimination, says a racism inclination still exist in this country.

President JIMMY CARTER: I think people that 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.

KEYES: President Carter was talking about both the protest and South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson's interruption of a presidential speech to Congress. But the White House has responded with a hear no evil, see no evil attitude, much as candidate Obama did during the campaign. White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs had this response yesterday.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): The president does not believe that criticism comes based on the color of his skin.

KEYES: Gibbs says it is all about the issues.

Mr. GIBBS: People have disagreements with some of the decisions that we've made and some the extraordinary actions that had to be undertaken by both this administration and previous administrations.

KEYES: On Capitol Hill today, House Minority Leader John Boehner rejected what he called the insinuation that people who are opposing the president are motivated by race.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): The outrage that we see in America has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with the policies that he is promoting.

KEYES: But Obama supporters such as Shirley Washington(ph) hear something insidious in the criticism of President Obama.

Ms. SHIRLEY WASHINGTON: I've been in this country all my life. And I know racism when I see it.

KEYES: Washington was standing outside of a town hall meeting on health care at Washington, D.C., holding a sign that read: racism, America's mental illness. Washington thinks that opposition to Mr. Obama is different.

Ms. WASHINGTON: They have not called another president a liar in the Capitol. That's just unbelievable to me. They have not allowed - disallowed their children to hear a president speak on the opening of a school day.

KEYES: This reaction has been especially visceral among people of color but it's not limited to that community. Steve Thompson(ph) a white D.C. resident attending the same town hall said the criticism has been too outrageous to be about policy alone.

Mr. STEVE THOMPSON: Instead of being a reasoned objection or a question or let's change it in this way or here's a specific flaw, it's just been categorical denunciations.

KEYES: Some protestors who marched to the U.S. capitol last weekend, categorically denied that race was a factor in their anger. But Shirley Washington says people should remember, the world is watching how America adjusts to its first black president. And she wonders what kind of message is being sent.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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