Carter's Comments: Right, But Distracting

President Jimmy Carter speaks at Emory University in Atlanta, i i

hide captionFormer President Jimmy Carter spoke to a nation divided September 16, 2009. But is it racism or policy disagreements that are fueling disagreements with President Obama?

Paul Abell/AP
President Jimmy Carter speaks at Emory University in Atlanta,

Former President Jimmy Carter spoke to a nation divided September 16, 2009. But is it racism or policy disagreements that are fueling disagreements with President Obama?

Paul Abell/AP

So by now, you have almost certainly heard or read about the biggest political controversy of the week. The spark? Twenty-five words uttered by former President Jimmy Carter during a broad interview with NBC's Brian Williams: "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man."

Oh boy.

How could a retired politician, wondered many commentators, be — well, so impolitic — in expressing deep concern about the character of the most vocal, the most vitriolic critics of the first person of color to lead the White House? To many others, like myself, Carter was largely stating the disturbingly obvious.

Jimmy Carter's Wednesday, Sept. 16 comments suggesting that Rep. Joe Wilson's (R-SC) outburst was racially motivated has reignited the passionate discussion about racism in America. Liberal commentator Dominique Apollon and conservative commentator Armstrong Williams weigh in on Carter's remarks.

A brief recap of the preceding several weeks of said "intensely demonstrated" anger and hatred directed toward President Obama should be instructive:

Let's see, members of the so-called "birther" movement have loudly disrupted town hall events — designed to generate fruitful discussion for the health care reform debate — shrieking boisterously that the Hawaiian-born son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya does not have an American birth certificate, and is therefore constitutionally ineligible to serve as commander-in-chief.

Mark Williams, a national leader of the "small government" tea parties, referred on his blog to Obama as an "Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug" and "racist-in-chief," yet saw no need to retract or even backpedal on those statements in an interview on CNN.

Posters of the president portrayed as a voodoo witch doctor appeared at recent anti-administration marches, populated almost entirely by white conservatives and Libertarians, in what is — on the contrary — a rapidly diversifying country.

Glenn Beck told his radio listeners, "the health care bill is reparations [for slavery]. It's the beginning of reparations," stoking white paranoia and ignorance.

A videotape was released of a white high school student being beaten up by two separate black students on a school bus in an Illinois town. How did Rush Limbaugh interpret this incident for his predominantly white male, conservative audience? Well, of course, as proof-positive of an insidious anti-white pattern that is emblematic of "Obama's America [where] the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering."

And last but not least, the issue that inspired Republican South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst during the president's formal address to a joint session of Congress. It was the false assertion that the moderate president's health care plan would offer coverage for so-called "illegal immigrants." That's a term which more often than not is used as thinly veiled pejorative code for our undocumented Latino neighbors, who like documented individuals in our society are guilty mainly of striving to do what is best for their families and communities. Let's be real — it's not Irish construction workers who overstayed their tourist visas that get Joe the Representative's blood boiling.

In sum, there's something beyond small government ideology that's fueling the ugliest of attacks at the Obama administration and agenda. As Kai Wright wrote this week for theroot.com, "It's self-evident that a movement that calls the president a lying, socialist, Nazi eugenicist with a fake birth certificate is about something more than deficit spending."

Dominique Apollon

hide captionDominique Apollon is research director of the Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank and home for media and activism based in Oakland, Calif., and New York, N.Y.

Courtesy of Dominique Apollon

Does this mean that everyone on the right is a racist? Obviously not.

Was that what President Carter was arguing? Not even close.

Yet, to listen to the world of cable news "pundits" this week was to be subjected to the most lazy, at best, or deliberately misleading, at worst, mis-characterizations of the aforementioned 25 words. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was one of the worst offenders, saying on Sean Hannity's Fox News program that it is "very destructive for America to suggest that we can't criticize the president without it being a racial act."

Come again there, Mr. Speaker? Point of clarification on your leap of logic, please.

One thing is clear: On matters of race, the pundits and public more often than not hear what they want to hear, and filter out the rest. Those with political motives interpret and characterize quotes in the most politically advantageous fashion.

In the meantime, those of us with our eyes on the rapidly closing social and racial justice window of opportunity have been trapped into expending precious time and energy on a debate about intentions and extent. The true need is in developing organizational strategies to mobilize people of color, women, the poor and their allies who recognize the profound injustice of the existence of tens of millions of uninsured and under-insured people in our society.

If we move quick enough, it won't be too late to get back to that critical work.

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