LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The sometimes bitter public discourse over health care reform has raised the question of whether race is a factor in the debate. This week on CBS's "Late Show with David Letterman," President Barack Obama had a lighthearted response to the question.
President BARACK OBAMA: Well, first of all, I think it's important to realize that I was actually black before the election. So the...
(Soundbite of laughter, applause)
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Pres. OBAMA: Really. This is true. This is true.
Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Comedian): How long have you been a black man?
(Soundbite of laughter)
WERTHEIMER: Well, Mr. Obama then went on to say one of the things you sign up for in politics is that folks yell at you.
Still, some prominent Democrats, including former President Jimmy Carter, have said racism is at play. NPR's Debbie Elliott traveled to Selma, Alabama to see how people there perceive the debate.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Selma is a city awash in civil war and civil rights history. You drive into town on the Jefferson Davis Highway, and it crosses the Alabama River at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In the shadow of that bridge where civil rights marchers were beaten back by state troopers is the National Voting Rights Museum.
Tour guide Sam Walker shows me around.
Mr. SAM WALKER (Tour Guide, National Voting Rights Museum): This wall is called the I Was There Wall.
ELLIOTT: Hundreds of so-called foot soldiers have pasted notes on the wall.
Mr. WALKER: Some people say, for example, I marked on bloody Sunday. But other people simply say I cooked meals for the marchers.
ELLIOTT: The museum collects those stories and documents milestones of the voting rights movement. The timeline ends with a portrait of the nation's first black president.
Walker sees parallels between what happened in Selma and the resistance to Mr. Obama's health care plan today.
Mr. WALKER: Anytime there's change, people are going to, you know, resist change, you know. People was abused here in 1965. I don't think all the people that did the abusing were bad people. But they were afraid of change. And they was trying to hold on to that last little bit of control that they thought they had, you know. And so that's the same thing that's coming back 44 years later.
ELLIOTT: Museum founder Faya Rose Toure is more harsh in her response to the president's critics.
Ms. FAYA ROSE TOURE (Museum Founder, National Voting Rights Museum): I can come to no other conclusion than race is a major factor. There are people who have legitimate concerns. But they have never expressed their legitimate concerns with such vengeance and hatred.
ELLIOTT: She says the fight over health care legislation is rooted in something deeper.
Ms. TOURE: There are those who lead you to believe that this will help black people, and you should be against anything that helps black people. And that is the propaganda that has been placed out there in the environment for 400 years. That if it's going to help blacks, then it's going to hurt you. And I really do believe that's what's at the bottom of what's going on.
ELLIOTT: Toure says watching the health care debate rage in Washington is disheartening for those who consider Obama's presidency to be the fruit of Selma.
Ms. TOURE: That's what's so disturbing to people, that this is our president, someone that looks like us, someone that even walks like us, if you notice that walk.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. TOURE: You know, and yet the attacks on him are so unprecedented. And so for the first time since his inauguration, I think people are beginning to wonder if their promise can be fulfilled.
ELLIOTT: But some voters here are frustrated that the public discourse has now turned to race.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
Unidentified Man #1: Gentlemen.
Unidentified Man #2: How you doing? I'm James C. Gray(ph).
ELLIOTT: I sat down at a restaurant just a few blocks from the museum to broach the subject with a group of middle-aged white men, self-described conservatives.
Mr. STEVE FITTS (Manager, Pest Control Business): I'm Steve Fitts. I manage a small business here in Selma. I've lived here all my life, since 1961, if you want to do the math and figure my age. The only thing about race that I see here is when - and it's a scary thing when people will want to criticize you and call you a racist for criticizing a policy of a sitting president. And if we're not able to criticize his policy because he is black, we have lost our country.
Mr. GENE HISEL (Convenience Store Owner): So true. I just want to say amen to that. I really do.
ELLIOTT: Convenience Store Owner Gene Hisel.
Mr. HISEL: I think when we get - when we start talking about race, it's a very effective tool to settle an argument very quickly because once race comes up, I don't want to talk about it anymore if you're telling me because I disagree with you, I have a problem with race.
Mr. FITTS: And us sitting here having to defend having this different view, and we're talking about race, shows how effective that tactic is, because we're sitting here now having to talk about race rather than the issue. And the issue is that we are going socialist.
ELLIOTT: Fitts says he was just as mad with President Bush's spending and support for the first stimulus package. There's a sense at the table, as one man put it, that the government is being hijacked. Benny Austin owns a car repair shop.
Mr. BENNY AUSTIN (Owner, Car Repair Shop): Every quarter, I write the estimated income taxes. When I paid mine just a few weeks ago, I had a hollow feeling inside that I've never had before. And it's because I don't trust. Before, I had the usual, you know, they do things I don't like, but I feel like overall they've got our best interest at heart. I don't have that feeling anymore.
ELLIOTT: All the men around this table say South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson acted inappropriately when he yelled you lie during the president's address to Congress. But they question the leap to label him a racist.
Gene Hisel says the whole incident has spun out of control.
Mr. HISEL: I think it was certainly bad taste. And I wish that he would have thought beforehand what door this was going to open up, because this was the door that opened up the major racial turmoil that we're having to deal with today.
ELLIOTT: Selma, Alabama, has long dealt with the nation's racial turmoil. In the 1800s, steamships carried slaves up the Alabama River to auction. The city was one of the Confederacy's main munitions centers, and was overtaken by Union troops in the Battle of Selma. The violence here in the �60s brought about the Voting Rights Act. And today, the mostly black city school system struggles to attract white students.
Some longtime civil rights activists turned barbers say it's time to move on. Floyd Tolbert and Donald Brown cut hair in a four-chair barber shop in downtown Selma.
Mr. FLOYD TOLBERT (Barber): Give the president a chance. Forget about that he is a black president.
Mr. DONALD BROWN (Barber): And until we get together, as the two races are a different race, all of us are going to pay the price for being stupid idiot and the black people, white people, Democrat, Republican. And the price is less of an America than what it could be, just because we different colors.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BROWN: All right.
ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.
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