In the past few days, former President Jimmy Carter has caused a national firestorm by remarking that much of the current opposition to President Obama is rooted in racism. As expected, the racist wing of the GOP quickly dismissed Carter's comments as wrongheaded and divisive. In truth, however, President Carter was merely identifying a political reality that many of us have been unable or unwilling to recognize: much of the current anti-Obama sentiment has little to do with policy and much to do with race.
Since becoming the Democratic party's nominee last May, President Obama has been the victim of the most racist smear campaign in American political history. From the xenophobic investigations into his religious background to the moonbatish birther controversy, the right-wing political machine has gone to extravagant lengths to paint Obama as an uppity, untrustworthy, and unprincipled outsider whose very existence represents a threat to the American way of life.
Although the language of race has rarely been explicitly invoked, terms like "Marxist," "Nazi," "extremist," and "foreigner" have been used to smuggle racism and xenophobia into the public conversation without political consequence.
Of course, this is not to suggest that everyone who opposes President Obama is a racist. To the contrary, there have been numerous legitimate reasons to challenge the president's policies and plans since the beginning of his term. Unfortunately, even the most legitimate critiques have too often been cloaked in a deeply racidicalized veil that appeals to the most vulgar sensibilities within our country.
I have witnessed this firsthand at several of the health care town halls, where angry white citizens gathered not to talk about policy details, but to vent their anger that "this guy" was changing "their country" by trying to give health care to "those people."
While strong opposition to health care reform existed during the presidency of Bill Clinton -- whose health care plan was far less moderate than the current proposals-- the 1993 protests were relatively devoid of personal animus and vile ad hominem attacks. In the case of Obama, however, many citizens are closing ranks around racial anger and fear rather than a principled and unified political vision.
Still, despite mounds of evidence, the left has refused to substantively address the racist dimensions of the current assaults on Obama. This is largely due to the Republican Party's masterful manipulation of our nation's racial anxieties. As soon as Obama became the Democratic nominee, Right-wingers began complaining that they could not critique President Obama without being labeled racist. Despite being completely unfounded-- both Obama and his liberal defenders have been loath to address issues of race except under extreme political duress-- such arguments have placed Democrats in an all-too-familiar defensive and reactionary posture. Instead of speaking out aggressively against racist tactics, they opt to say nothing to avoid being accused of exploiting race.
As a result of the right's preemptive strike on the racial front, liberals have remained dangerously silent in the face of the most egregious acts of racism against Obama to date. It is for this reason that Representative Joe Wilson could heckle Obama during his Congressional address and only be challenged for his rudeness rather than his racism. Although he has received a formal reprimand from the House of Representatives (the political equivalent of an after-school detention) such a punishment is nothing more than a badge of honor that enhances Wilson's street cred amongst those who were happy to see the nation's first black president "put in his place." This type of political cowardice from Democrats only emboldens the right to continue prosecuting its war of racial terror.
By identifying the racial dimensions of the current political moment, President Carter has pointed out a huge elephant in the room. Until the rest of the Democratic Party musters the courage to do the same on a regular basis, President Obama will continue to take unnecessary hits. And so will our national character.
Marc Lamont Hill is a Columbia University professor and FOX News contributor.