Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Jimmy Carter says 'You lie' outburst was based on racism

From the AP via the New Orleans Times-Picayune back in September:

Former President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday that U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst to President Barack Obama during a speech to Congress last week was an act "based on racism" and rooted in fears of a black president.

"I think it's based on racism," Carter said in response to an audience question at a town hall held at his presidential center in Atlanta. "There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president."

The Georgia Democrat said the outburst was a part of a disturbing trend directed at the president that has included demonstrators equating Obama to Nazi leaders.

"Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on health care," he said. "It's deeper than that."


"Well yeah," I thought when I first heard this, "obviously." Liberal friends all agreed. Definitely racism. "But impossible to prove," I thought almost as quickly.

I mean, as ludicrous as some of the radical right's views on health care reform are, it doesn't make conservatives racist to simply disagree with a black President. And yeah, some of these right-wing nuts are toting around guns at tea-bagger parties and town hall forums and whatnot, but we saw the same thing, more or less, back in the 1990s with President Clinton, who is white. How can you convincingly argue, in a public forum, that opposition to health care reform is "based on racism" when health care reform as an idea is racially neutral, and when a white Democratic President was treated approximately the same way by conservatives a decade ago?

I mean, I wouldn't personally go as far as Carter did, asserting that racism plays a central role in motivating Obama's critics, but race is almost certainly a major factor here. At this point in history, the Republican "Southern Strategy" is well understood: the South didn't go red by accident; for decades Republicans have been rhetorically exploiting the irrational racist fears of Southern whites in order to get them to vote for the GOP against their own interests. Code words like "crime" (black men will slit your throats) and "states' rights" (principally, the right to discriminate against lazy, criminal, and drug-addicted black people) and "welfare queen" (who is always a big fat black woman driving a Cadillac to pick up her welfare check) are now deeply embedded in Republican mythology. It's pretty tough to be a Republican these days, especially in the South, without buying, at least, some of the racist bullshit.

So it's out there. Racism is necessarily a part of modern conservatism in the United States. I mean, clearly, most Republicans don't think of themselves as racist, but they're very quick to tell you that most crimes are committed by blacks, or that they hate welfare, or that they want to get the federal government off "the people's" backs: I'd bet my copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X that many, if not most, of these Republicans see black faces in their minds when they're talking about these issues.

But how can you expose the content of people's souls during an argument? How can you prove that when Republicans talk about "states' rights" that they're actually talking about turning back the clock on civil rights, especially when they won't even admit it to themselves?

President Obama was wise to steer clear of this one. It's an argument liberals can't win. At least, not today. I mean, liberals and conservatives don't even understand the term "racism" in the same way: to conservatives it's about how individuals treat each other; to liberals it's about individuals, groups, and institutions of power. When the left and right discuss racism, it's a fucked up conversation. They're not talking about the same thing.

For now, it would be better for liberals to keep pounding away at the limited right-wing definition of the word "racism," opening conservative eyes to the racial injustices they refuse to see. Because playing the race card in the way that Carter did simply makes them feel persecuted and self-righteous.