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Opposition to Obama: It's not all black and white

The president's policies have drawn legitimate protests -- but Jimmy Carter's allegations regarding racial animus have some relevance too.

September 18, 2009

Only in America would a white former president attribute racial animus to opponents of a black president who declines to make the same accusation. Could both Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama be right in a debate that has eclipsed the incident that ignited it, Rep. Joe "You lie!" Wilson's outburst during a joint session of Congress?

We think so, if you allow for hyperbole in Carter's case and political calculation in Obama's. The 84-year-old former president, who deserves everlasting credit for rejecting the racist politics of his native South, didn't paint all tea party protesters as white racists. Here are his exact words in an interview with NBC: "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, that he's African American."

Carter didn't provide a clear definition of "intensely demonstrated animosity," and one could gloss his words as applying to a minority of even angry Obama opponents. It doesn't really matter, because the words that reverberated were "overwhelming portion," and they have been interpreted as a blanket indictment of those who have swelled tea parties and town halls. It quickly became accepted wisdom among conservatives that Carter was equating opposition to Obama with bigotry.

Distancing himself as much from that perception as from a literal reading of Carter's words, Obama, through his spokesman, said he "does not believe that that criticism comes based on the color of his skin." The president who as a candidate said that "race is an issue

Even so, Carter has a point. It isn't just "socialized medicine" and bank bailouts that enrage some Obamaphobes. They're also upset by the seismic social change symbolized by an African American president who, for good measure, bears the middle name Hussein. That shouldn't be surprising. Throughout this nation's history, populist movements have comprised both a resentment of economic elites and a suspicion of blacks, Jews and immigrants. Conservatives who deny that reality are just as obtuse as liberals who dismiss all of Obama's detractors as racists.

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