Former President Carter's Comments On Race Stokes Debate

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Former President Jimmy Carter says he thinks some criticisms of President Obama and his plan to overhaul health care are rooted in racism. But White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs says the President doesn't believe he's being targeted because of the color of his skin. Meanwhile, few civil rights leaders and leading black politicians have spoken up on the issue. Guest host Mandalit del Barco talks about the race factor with Miami Herald Columnist Leonard Pitts and author Barbara Ehrenrich.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, host:

I'm Mandilit del Barco. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, an artistic and tasty exploration of Ramadan. Two Muslim bloggers detailed the creative ways they found to observe The Holy Month.

But first, the debate over health care grows more contentious, and there's now a discussion about whether race was a key factor and how people have responded to President Obama and his plan. This week, former President Jimmy Carter said racism is indeed at play particularly when it comes to references to Obama as an animal or Adolf Hitler.

President JIMMY CARTER: Those kinds of things are beyond the bounds of the way presidents have ever been accepted, even with people who disagree. And 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.

DEL BARCO: Joining me now to talk about the race factor is Pulitzer Prize winning nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts. He joins us from his home outside Washington. Also with us is author and social critic Barbara Ehrenrich. She joins us from Spartanburg, South Carolina. Welcome, to both of you.

Mr. LEONARD PITTS (Columnist): Glad to be here.

Ms. BARBARA EHRENRICH (Author): Thank you, yeah.

DEL BARCO: Leonard Pitts, what do you make of the White House's claim that President Obama doesn't agree with the criticism against him.

Mr. PITTS: I find it terribly unsurprising. Barack Obama is in a real catch-22 situation. There is no way that he can acknowledge what is becoming increasingly an apparent reality for most of us just as a political matter. The moment that he acknowledges this, he essentially gives his political opponent a cudgel to beat him at the side of the head with. So, there's really no way that he can come out and say that the reason that you're treating me this way is because of race, although I would wager a week's salary that in his heart of hearts that's exactly, you know, what he feels and knows.

DEL BARCO: So, it's a political move?

Mr. PITTS: I believe politically there's no way that he can do it. The absolute gift to his political opponents would be for them to be able to say he is whining, he can't take the heat, et cetera, etcetera. The things that are typically said when as an African-American you decry the fact that someone is being racially biased against you.

And as president, he has to - and I think he understands that he has to have a larger agenda. So, he can't really satisfy sort of the personal need to say, you know, get up off me or stop treating me this way for the color of my skin. Because the moment he does that, politically, he's in the soup even more than he is now.

DEL BARCO: And in a recent column, you wrote that many of the president's detractors do find it hard to accept that the new guy Obama is liberal and black.

Mr. PITTS: Yeah, I think that those two things. I think the ones where it gets underplayed, but I think neither quite by itself gets us to where we are. In other words, it's the new guy Collin Powell, who is black but more conservative and a Republican, I think he'd still be saying some racially tainted episodes here and there but not to the degree we're seeing with Obama. He's frankly the worse nightmare of a lot of people who are watching.

DEL BARCO: Barbara Ehrenrich, what role is race playing in this debate in your opinion?

Ms. EHRENRICH: Well, a few weeks ago, I was - set out to research the opposition to a health reform, you know, interviewing people, going on the Web, going to different groups' Web sites, and what struck me immediately was this is not about health care. And it didn't take too much imagination to see what really seemed to be an issue with race. And the references to race would come up again and again in what I was reading and hearing from people really bothered me.

Like the (unintelligible) theory that health reform is actually a form of disguised reparations for African-Americans. The logic there, don't ask me to explain it, but apparently white people would pay all the money to make it happen, and black people would get all the care and white people would not get any care. Now, it doesn't make any sense, but that's the kind of thing that I encountered. That was actually from the FOX News Web site. So, I sort of backed off thinking of health altogether when I realized that wasn't the issue anymore.

DEL BARCO: Did both of you find it interesting that a white man, Jimmy Carter, the former president brought out the issue of racism?

Mr. PITTS: I found it gratifying, frankly, because it let me know that I, you know, either that I wasn't crazier. That if I'm crazy, I'm not alone and I have some pretty high profile and prestigious company. I think that this is not anything new. People like me have been saying this for quite a while, but think the fact that Jimmy Carter, who again brings the prestige of the presidency to this, I think the fact that he is saying this, it heightens visibility, lends it a heightened credibility and makes it a lot more difficult for people to just sort of sweep it under the rug and ignore.

DEL BARCO: Barbara, how do you feel about that?

Ms. EHRENRICH: Well, I said it in Sunday's New York Times. I think this is even before Jimmy Carter, you know, I said that - that's what, you have a combination in this country of the worst economic downturn since The Great Depression and the first black president ever. You can expect that some of the resentment and anger, the economic anger that people are feeling, white people are feeling is going to take a racial direction.

This is America. That happens. And that is what's saddening. Also, I would say on Sunday in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd, the columnist said, whoa, wait, you know, this is what it's all about. So, I think a lot of voices have - and I'm white too - have all been saying this is no way to discuss health reform. You've left that subject behind.

DEL BARCO: It is interesting that we haven't heard that much from the black politicians on this. So much, it may be goes back to what you were saying, Leonard, about how racism is perceived.

Mr. PITTS: My great advantage, you know, as an African-American, you know, making these observations is that I'm not running for anything. So, I can afford really not to care. But an African-American politician in that sense is no different from any other politician. He or she has a constituency to please. He or she cannot afford to be perceived in certain ways by that constituency for the certain things that they are going to be hamstrung from saying.

So in a sense, it follows to, you know, African-Americans who are in the punditocracy or it falls to white Americans who are either pundits or politicians to make this case. It's going to be very difficult for an African-American politician to make this case unless he or she has decided whether it's more important for me to make this case than it is for me to be elected again, or to be successful in my office holding.

DEL BARCO: That being said, Barbara, do you think it's time for President Obama to have a sequel to his famous speech on…

Ms. EHRENRICH: Could you say something about this? Well, I agree with Leonard that it's hard for him. He's in a very difficult position. I am not expecting him to come up with a second speech about race in response to this. I really do think the responsibility falls to other observers right now to say, hey, this is what's going on. And by the way some of the black congressional caucus members have spoken up, you know, about what they have encountered, say, in their own town hall meetings, and about the general racist drift of things. So it's not like there's been a complete silence from black elected officials.

DEL BARCO: Author and social critic Barbara Ehrenrich and Pulitzer Prize winning nationally-syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts. Thanks for talking to us.

Mr. PITTS: My pleasure.

Ms. EHRENRICH: My pleasure, too.

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