Charges of racism in recent days, from op-ed pages to Jimmy Carter's interpretation of Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst, are proving ... complicated.
Strangest was Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson's comment that, without a House resolution censuring Wilson, America would see "folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again, and riding through the countryside intimidating people."
Whew. That was a close one.
Racism is nothing to laugh about, of course, and I wrote about my own concerns during the presidential campaign. But some of the commentary lately has been so overwrought as to be laughable. It is profoundly irresponsible, for example, to call Wilson a racist under the circumstances - as bad as, if not worse than, calling someone a liar.
Carter isn't totally wrong when he says that racism is behind some of the animus toward President Obama. Racism isn't dead in America, and some of those who dislike Obama surely dislike him because he's black. This is statistically probable, if not necessarily "significant" in the scientific sense.
It's worth noting that Obama's approval rating was nearly 70 percent in January, dropping to 45 percent early this month. Did all those people suddenly become racist? Or are they, as Wilson claims to be, passionately concerned about the rapid growth of government and debt?
Admittedly, South Carolina, Wilson's home state, hasn't made it easy or palatable to leap to the South's defense, but those who have glommed onto the Wilson-as-racist theme are indicting with thin evidence. They cite: (1) his membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans; (2) his objections when Essie Mae Williams-Washington, an African-American, revealed that Strom Thurmond was her father; and (3) the fact that Wilson fought efforts several years ago to remove the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina's State House.
Odd as Wilson's Confederate affections sound to non-Southerners, they do not automatically make him a racist. Random racists notwithstanding, many Southerners view the flag as a symbol of their ancestors' valor, not as a defense of slavery or animosity toward blacks. Wilson's reaction to Thurmond's black daughter, saying her revelation was an unseemly attempt to smear the recently deceased senator's reputation, was ungentlemanly, offensive and, obviously, wrong. Wilson, who once worked for Thurmond, subsequently apologized.
But was his protest inspired by racism?
All is speculation, whichever side one takes, and I have no interest in defending Wilson or any of the awful ideas the South has spawned. As a resident South Carolinian, however, I often find myself trying to explain this odd place where my mother's family settled in the late 1600s. For the record, I wrote three columns favoring removal of the battle flag, which was hoisted in 1962 when Fritz Hollings, a Democrat, was governor.
Whatever prompted Wilson's rude display, it ultimately revealed our hair-trigger response to any remark or action involving an African-American. It is the height (or depth) of racism to suggest that any opposition to Obama's policies is race-based.
Unfortunately, Republican operatives have conducted enough tactical racism to make it an easy charge. There's a reason the Southern strategy, using white resentment toward blacks to garner votes, has worked the past few decades. There's a reason push-pollers were able to thwart John McCain in the 2000 S.C. primary by suggesting that his Bangladeshi adopted daughter was his illegitimate black child. There's a reason why, in 2006, Republicans created an ad against black Senate candidate Harold Ford that featured a winking white woman fondly recalling seeing him at a Playboy party and inviting him to call her.
We rightly examine these episodes in search of correction. Where racism appears, it needs to be exposed and expunged. But let's be equally brutal about reverse racial sensitivity, the kind that obscures or hinders the search for truth. Is it remotely possible, for example, that fear of appearing racist and suppressing the black vote has hampered efforts to expose the ACORN voter fraud that Republican activists have tried for years to bring to light?
Sources close to McCain's 2008 campaign say he was so concerned about appearing racist that he was reluctant to emphasize his resume as war hero versus the community organizer. He also had a list of words, including "risky," that he refused to use for fear of connoting something racially negative about his opponent.
All of these are reasons enough to be sensitive to race, but also to be wary of the racist epithet. Our racially divided past, and hoped-for unified future, is too important to be co-opted for political purposes - by either side.