Jimmy Carter and Hidden Racism
I have a confession to make. I really don’t know whether or not Jimmy Carter was correct in remarking to NBC’s Brian Williams that “an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity” toward Obama has been motivated by racism. The reason for my uncertainty is simple enough: I’m not sure how to determine what counts as “racism” anymore.
Most commentators profess to know more than I do. Whatever it is they mean by racism, commentators agree that Carter exaggerated its role in motivating Tea Party protests and town hall disruptions. That Carter overstated his case, there can be little doubt. Rather, commentators disagree as to exactly how much of a role racism has played, and just what we should do about it. On Friday, Eugene Robinson argued in the Washington Post that Carter was “right in essence, but wrong in degree.” Not all of Obama’s opposition is racist, in Robinson’s view, just Joe Wilson, the “crazy birthers,” and the protestors who carried “racially offensive caricatures” of the president while accusing him of socialism. His colleague Kathleen Parker disagrees somewhat, opining this morning that racist accusations have gotten out of hand: surely, there is some truth to them; yet we should also be wary of the “racist epithet,” since our “racially divided past, and hoped-for unified future” is all too easily co-opted by politicians. Finally, between Robinson and Parker there is the middle way provided by New York Times columnist Charles Blow: “Stop talking about racism as if it’s black or white,” he urges.
What to make of all of this? Blow comes closest to the mark in insisting that we acknowledge the ambiguities surrounding racism today. It used to be that if you were a racist, you said so. To be a racist meant to openly declare that blacks ought not attend the same schools or drink from the same fountains as whites. Today, by contrast, racism has become an “insidious form of prejudice that emerges when people can justify their negative feelings toward blacks based on factors other than race,” to quote a 2003 study by Rice University cited by Blow.
Insidious is right. What this week’s columnists all have in common with each other and with Jimmy Carter is their desire to discern interior motives. More significantly, Robinson, Parker, and Blow desire to discern interior motives in the absence of a personal confession. No birther or Tea Party protester has, to my knowledge, taken his prejudices to the psychoanalyst’s chair or confessional booth. Devoid of such methods, commentators rely on interpreting outward signs pointing toward possible inward realities. Does respect for the confederate flag indicate racism? How about the desire to see Obama’s birth certificate? Fear of socialism?
We are not talking about traffic signs here. Everyone knows to stop on red and go on green. Most signs, however, are less easily interpreted – or, at least, far less likely to produce a consensus. Robinson may be right in suggesting that protesters call Obama a socialist in order to make his status as a black man seem “alien and even dangerous.” Yet it is also possible – as most commentators would admit – that some people genuinely fear the expansion of government. More troubling still, it is possible that many of the protesters are racist without knowing it; it is, in other words, possible that the protesters are not fully aware of their own discomfort with having a black president, even as that discomfort motivates their opposition to Obama’s policies. All of this is possible, with the result that most conjectures as to whether or not someone is a racist – in the absence of clear evidence or personal knowledge of the individual – say more about the commentator than the accused.
In a sense, racism poses even more of a problem today than it did 40 years ago. It is no longer easily diagnosed, but appears alongside a host of other unpleasant symptoms in the body politic; we know that we are experiencing nausea and fatigue, but lack an adequately trained physician to diagnose our disease.