Race row erupts over Carter claim

Former President questions motives of high-profile opposition to Barack Obama

After lurking near the surface of political discourse in America for months, awkward questions about race and bigotry burst into the open yesterday after Jimmy Carter forthrightly suggested that "an overwhelming portion" of the more violent opposition to President Barack Obama and his policies has to do with the colour of his skin.

Barely had the words been uttered by the former President than the political firmament was alight. Some were simply shocked that he had dared to tread so heavily on such delicate ground. Some were in enthusiastic agreement. And his critics, including a few Democrats, were furious.

For the White House, it was a mostly unwelcome distraction from the task of the hour, health-care reform. Historically, Mr Obama has recoiled from any attempt to define him or his place in history in racial terms. His officials have repeatedly asserted that those who oppose him, for example on health-care reform or deficit spending, do so because of the issues and nothing more; it was with this that Mr Carter would disagree.

"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," Mr Carter told an NBC interviewer late Tuesday. "I think it's bubbled up to the surface, because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country."

The White House, detecting a no-win situation, has refused to comment directly on Mr Carter's observation. But elsewhere the response was heated on both sides. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor of African American studies at Princeton, congratulated Mr Carter, saying he had once again "demonstrated the power of interracial solidarity against racism", and had "carefully, powerfully, and accurately pointed out that racism is currently motivating some Americans' opposition to President Obama".

At the other end of the spectrum was Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican Party. "President Carter is flat out wrong," he said. "This isn't about race. It is about policy. This is a pathetic distraction by Democrats to shift attention from the President's wildly unpopular, government-run health-care plan."

Right or wrong, Mr Carter had drawn attention again to the elephant that has been trampling around the room since Mr Obama announced his run for the presidency. It first made itself noticed over the candidate's association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the "Black Value System" espoused by his Chicago Church, a conflagration that culminated in his seminal speech on race, generally considered to have been amongst his finest campaigning moments. It appeared again this summer when a black Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, tangled with a white Boston policeman who had been called to investigate a "break-in" to his house. Professor Gates was merely trying to pry open his own door; Mr Obama said the officer had behaved "stupidly".

That time it was perhaps Mr Obama who drew attention to the issue. But usually, he tries to push it away. When David Paterson, the Governor of New York, said in August that he was suffering politically because he is black and that Mr Obama would be the "next on the list", the White House took issue with him almost at once.

And at an unexpectedly well-attended rally of assorted anti-Obama protesters in the Washington Mall on Saturday, some carried placards with messages such as , "The Zoo as an African and the White House as a Lyin' African" and "Cap Congress and Trade Obama Back to Kenya!" While many saw the poison of racism coursing through the crowd, the White House preferred not to.

"I don't think the President believes that people are upset because of the colour of his skin," Robert Gibbs, the chief spokesman said. "I think people are upset because on Monday we celebrate the anniversary of the Lehman [Brothers] collapse that caused a financial catastrophe unlike anything we have ever seen."

Another side-show of the summer was the "birther" movement that contended that Mr Obama's birth certificate is phoney, that he was not in fact born in Hawaii as he contends but somewhere beyond US territory. Racist? Possibly, possibly not. Lou Dobbs, a CNN anchor and avid fan of the birthers, even suggested that Mr Obama might be an illegal alien. "You suppose he's un ... No, I won't even use the word 'undocumented'; it wouldn't be right," he teased.

And what, by the way, is racist about the two words that Republican congressman Joe Wilson let fly during a healthcare debate last week, "You lie"? Plenty, according to many of Mr Obama's followers, who argue that he would be accorded greater respect by some extremists were he white, that, in the words of Maureen Dowd: "Some people just can't believe a black man is President and will never accept it." Nonsense, his critics reply: the outburst was an expression of political anger and nothing more.

But Mr Wilson has in the past espoused causes like keeping the old Confederate flag, which remains tied in many people's minds to the Old South of slavery, flying over South Carolina's state legislature. Mr Carter, speaking to a town-hall meeting in Atlanta on Tuesday evening, was clear about where he thinks the congressman's blurted remark was coming from. "I think it's based on racism," he said in response. "There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African American should not be President."

It is quite an accusation, and one that few still in electoral politics would be willing to make. But there are Democrats who disagree with Mr Carter, too, including the veteran strategist Lanny Davis, who accused Mr Carter of indulging in "subjective, non-factual name calling". He went on: "It is even more distressful to me, a liberal Democrat, when a former Democratic President (whom I supported in 1976) does it."

On the record, at least, the White House might agree. But disciples of Mr Obama, tired of the daily assaults against him, would side, with some sadness, with Mr Carter on this one.

What the critics say... and what it means

"They are going to have to go after Oreos. They might have to put that off until after Mr Obama's out of office." Rush Limbaugh

Talk-show host Limbaugh was talking about the so-called "food police", and Oreos are, of course, a popular biscuit, with two dark brown discs and a white cream filling. But Oreo is also a slur used to imply that an African American is trying to deny their race and pretend to be a white person.

"Pretty soon, white men are going to notice they are the ones being excluded."

Steve King

Mr King, a Republican Congressman from Iowa, is clearly feeding into the mythology peddled in 2008 that Mr Obama would surround himself with black activists whose sole agenda would be to put down the white man. This is nasty, racially divisive stuff.

"This President... has deep-seated hatred for white people... this guy is, I believe, a racist."

Glenn Beck

There it is again. Heaven forefend that anyone should accuse Mr Beck, a Fox news star, of displaying one iota of racism, because it's precisely the other way around. Obama is the racist (and white people need to be afraid).

"I'm sure it's just one of Michelle's ancestors, probably harmless."

Rusty DePass

DePass, a Republican activist, later issued a mealy-mouthed apology over his "joke" that the first lady was descended from a gorilla. But things said in jest have a habit of sticking, especially where bigotry is concerned. Mr DePass admitted that the Michelle he had in mind was the President's wife. He could hardly have chosen a more overtly racist reference if he had tried.

David Usborne