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

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
musicKate Bush asks fans not to take photos at London gigs
News
i100
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Life and Style
fashion
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing & Commnunications Executive, London

£30000 - £34000 per annum: Charter Selection: This highly successful organisat...

Residential Property

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Residential Conveyancer - Wiltshire We have a...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Defendant Personal Injury 2+PQE

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - NICHE DEFENDANT FIRM - Defendant Pe...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment