Last week, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter interjected himself into a contentious debate. It has been noted that as distinguished figures get closer to the end of their lives, a certain willingness to disregard decorum in favor of blunt truth-telling comes into effect. But then again, Carter has long been controversial, speaking out in favor of the Palestinian cause and against what he sees as Israeli excesses. Carter has also broken with his church over the issue of ordaining women as ministers and has voiced support for civil unions for American gay couples. The former president waded deep into uncharacteristic behavior for ex-presidents when he called George W. Bush the “worst president in history” regarding Bush’s handling of international affairs.
This time around, Carter’s “call-it-like-I-see-it” commentary was aimed at the so-called “teabagger” protesters. “Teabaggers” are so called because of their aim to emulate the original “Boston Tea Party” of December 16, 1773, when a group of American revolutionary colonialists protesting British taxes stole aboard ships docked at Boston Harbor and dumped 90,000 British Pounds worth of tea into the water. Over the last few months, hundreds of small “teabagger” gatherings have taken place across the U.S., as groups of dissatisfied Americans protest what they see as President Obama’s moves towards socialism.
”Teabaggers” are generally opposed to Obama’s attempts to reform the U.S. health care system and see the new American President as actively increasing the size of government. Some of these latter protesters have held aloft photoshopped pictures of Obama as an African witch doctor or used other charged racial imagery. A vocal minority of these protesters do not recognize Barack Hussein Obama as the legitimate 44th president. Called “Birthers,” this fringe element claims Obama was actually born in Kenya and is therefore ineligible to serve as U.S. head of state.
Finally, there was the recent incident of U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson yelling “you lie” at President Obama during a joint session of Congress; a rare breach of the reasonably civil tone of the U.S. House and Senate. With all this animosity in the air, some Americans are finding it hard to believe that race has nothing to do with the nasty tone directed at President Obama.
Former President Carter, himself a son of the south and no stranger to the harsh climate of racism that once prevailed over much of his ancestral home, believes the criticism has strayed into racism. Carter’s exact quote was this: “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact he is a black man.” The reaction was immediate and swift. Republicans — including party chairman Michael Steele, who is black — called Carter’s comments ridiculous while many on the other side of the aisle either vocally agreed with Carter’s remarks or allowed their silence to indicate consent.
President Obama, who would rather focus on the glaring issues at hand, went on the record as disagreeing with Carter, saying he doesn’t believe those who criticize him have racism as their primary motive. Obama is wise to reject accusations of racism. For one, he needs to stay above the fray. Secondly, it is truly impossible to know what a person’s motives are. Racism can sometimes get mixed up with tribalism. We are all tribal and we generally prefer the company of people who share our tribe’s culture. For some, new faces or skin tones set off initial alarm bells that later fall silent as the object of their concern proves to be part of the tribe.
Also, people can make racist comments without actually being “racists.” For instance, making a stupid “Polish” or “black” joke may be ill-advised and ignorant, but that doesn’t mean the teller is a supporter of the KKK. True racists are irrational; surviving on a diet of acidic hatred until eventually succumbing to it.
However, there are many Americans who agree with former President Carter. For these Obama supporters there’s just no dancing around the fact that the signs and tone of the protests are racist. “Would they be making such comments if he were white?” they ask. It’s perhaps understandable that America must endure such tit-for-tat. Barack Obama is the first president of non-European descent and his multi-cultural past can be frightening for those still stuck in a “tribal” mindset.
The fact is, America is changing, and change can be scary. In the early days of the U.S., North European immigrants were somewhat dominant and the newly arrived Southern and Eastern Europeans were the “other.” After a few decades these “others” were assimilated and another group became the new “others.” If projections prove true, America will cease to be a “Caucasian European” majority nation by 2040 — and that’s not too far away. Obama is just the tip of a huge iceberg of change that is on a collision course with the “America” we understand today.
For his part, Obama is hoping to stop these distractions before they overwhelm his presidency. And truthfully, both sides need to bring some temperance to their conflict. The left must understand that change can be difficult and those uncomfortable with Obama and his policies are not necessarily racists. Those on the right need to understand that change is inevitable and that evolution, while sometimes difficult, can lead to greater things.