Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Who's the racist?

Like more than a few other politicians and Hollywood celebrities before him, former President Jimmy Carter has alleged that those who oppose President Obama (or, in this case, his desired policies on health care) oppose him on the basis of race. And, as is to be expected, the breakdown of how his comments were interpreted depends upon to whom you listen. Liberal interpretations suggested that there was truth behind his statement while conservative readings implied that it was an outrage to suggest that any opposition to the president was based solely on racism. Rational discussion with nuance, context and perspective seems to be out the window - as it so often does when the conversation turns to race in America.

President Carter, who has never been hesitant to speak his mind on any subject since losing his re-election bid in 1980, has done a disservice to the increasingly heated political debate in the US. His criticism was relating to the actions of US Representative Joe Wilson during President Obama's speech to Congress the previous week but the implication was that a lot of the criticism of President Obama is based on his ethnicity. Frankly, while people will choose to believe or disregard based upon their own world-view, his assertion is impossible to prove one way or another. Essentially, he is assigning motive to action - it is a logical fallacy. To put it another way, it would be the same as arguing that because we see the sun go over us each day, from the eastern to the western horizon, it is therefore true that the sun must revolve around the earth. Needless to say, that was a belief several hundred years ago that has been subsequently disproven. But how to disprove Carter's assertion? Or, for that matter, is it possible that his assertion may actually be true? The answer, as usual, lies somewhere in between.

Is there racism in America? Certainly! And that racism is not limited to white racism against blacks but extends from each racial group to other ethnicities. It is both subtle and overt. And it is typically based on stereotypes that are difficult to break when there is limited exposure to others different from oneself. But the racism that exists today in America is not the overt racism of 50 years earlier when specific laws were in place that prevented any sort of true integration and there was nowhere near the cultural and ethnic diversity - let alone the opportunities to travel and learn - that are available today. The generations that have grown up since the 1960's are not always familiar with the struggles of the earlier generations that fought for the rights that they often take for granted. Indeed, there is a generational struggle that is taking place between those who fought for equality in their youths and those who are able to take advantage of that growing equality today. But it is the younger generation who helped to elect the first black president in US history and can see it as the next progression in a much larger struggle for self-determination that is not based upon the color of one's skin.

But therein lies part of the issue with Carter's comments. As people rightly condemn whites (or others, for that matter) who perpetrate negative stereotypes about blacks, there is little outcry regarding Carter's harsh stereotyping of those who oppose President Obama - mainly whites according to Carter. If you oppose the president, it is because he is black. Yet there are a large number of people who oppose the president and his policies for a great many reasons other than the fact that he is black. It is not unreasonable to argue that many of his opponents are such not because of the color of his skin but because of the political party that he represents or the policies he hopes to put in place. But, by using a wide brush to paint the president's opponents as racist, Carter has only exacerbated the issue. The discussion can no longer be a rational conversation on the issues at hand but about how white Americans are racist against a black president. And it is a rational conversation that is needed between people, both individually and in large groups, that is needed in order to begin to address the specter of racism in America. Adding to that the fact that few Democrats are disputing Carter's comments only lends credence to a belief that the comments are simply a political ploy to be used against the opposition. And, to be fair, the Republican silence and support of Representative Wilson following his egregious breach of protocol during President Obama's speech to the Congress is another example of political play. (Of course, when Republicans are correctly lambasted for pandering to Southern whites during the Civil Rights era, they are racist. But when Democrats ridicule and demonize conservative blacks for being conservative - code word for Republican - no one speaks of the hypocrisy or double standard.)

Racism is still an issue in the US and will likely continue to be so for a while. It is not an easy subject to resolve, particularly given its rough history in the country. But when it is used as a political tool to further one's agenda or to damage one's opponent, then it will only further exacerbate the problem because both sides will feel demonized and neither will feel particularly inclined to rationally discuss the issues. Instead, it will be left to ferment just under the surface of daily life until another event sparks the raw emotions that remain unhealed.

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