- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

A police episode in Massachusetts. A voter rights case in Philadelphia. An offhand remark by his attorney general. A Supreme Court nominee’s speech. And now a congressman’s shout of “You lie!”

Barack Obama, the man who broke through America’s final racial barrier to become the nation’s first black president, has been unable to escape the country’s awkward dialogue about race during his first months in office, a conundrum that has been imposed by members of the political left and right who increasingly appear to feel comfortable using the race card to score political points.

Former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was the latest to stray into the race debate, suggesting that Rep. Joe Wilson’s now infamous “You lie” shout during the president’s health care speech to a joint session of Congress last week was an act of Old South racism.

Mr. Obama had sought to quickly detach himself from the Wilson drama, politely accepting the South Carolina Republican’s apology by phone. But then members of the president’s own party, pressed by the powerful Congressional Black Caucus, insisted on staging a mostly party-line vote to reprimand the lawmaker. And what started as a health care dispute over illegal immigrants soon strayed into race.

The White House wanted no part of the latest bait. “I’m not sure I see this large national conversation going on right now,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday.

Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic strategist and a DNC vice chairman, sees the situation as lose-lose.

“Carter’s comments on race is now being used by some to re-ignite a hollow conversation on racism in America,” she said on Twitter. “No one wins by touching race in such a shallow way. Automatically raises defenses and creates a backlash. Come together for a serious talk.”

During the summer, Mr. Obama caused a racial firestorm when he said a white police officer “acted stupidly” when he arrested a black Harvard professor who had forced his way into his home after his front door got stuck, prompting a call to police from a neighbor. The issue dominated news coverage for a week, muting the president’s call for health care reform and ending only after professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley joined Mr. Obama for a beer in the White House Rose Garden.

It was one of several racially tinged debates that have erupted since Mr. Obama, the son of a black Kenyan and a white Kansan, was elected president by winning 43 percent of the white vote, 95 percent of the black vote, 67 percent of the Hispanic vote and 62 percent of the Asian vote.

• In February, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. declared the American people “essentially a nation of cowards” for skirting the issue of race in their private lives during a Black History Month event at the Justice Department. It was his first major speech after being confirmed.

• In May, reacting to comments by Mr. Obama’s Supreme Court nominee that a “wise Latina” would be a better judge than a white man, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called Judge Sonia Sotomayor a “racist” and said she should withdraw her nomination. He withdrew his remark, and she is now on the bench.

• In September, a report in The Washington Times spurred an investigation into the dismissal of charges against members of the New Black Panther Party who disrupted a Philadelphia polling place during the November elections. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has twice asked Mr. Holder’s Justice Department to explain its action.

On Tuesday, Mr. Carter reignited a national debate that’s been brewing since Mr. Wilson’s outburst. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine last week refused to reject the notion that racism - rather than policy objections - motivates recalcitrant Republicans.

“There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president,” Mr. Carter said during a town hall meeting at his presidential center in Atlanta.

The former president and Democratic members of Congress are playing politics, Mr. Wilson told The Washington Times’ “America’s Morning News” radio show. He was formally reprimanded by the House on Tuesday.

“That is such a distraction and a diversion from the issues that we should be discussing,” he said. “I really want to take the advice of President Obama, and that is that we should be discussing the issues, and that is what I intend to do.”

Republicans, led by the first black to head the party, this week began pushing back - hard.

“President Carter is flat-out wrong. This isn’t about race. It is about policy,” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele said Wednesday.

“Injecting race into the debate over critical issues facing American families doesn’t create jobs, reform our health care system or reduce the growing deficit. … Characterizing Americans’ disapproval of President Obama’s policies as being based on race is an outrage and a troubling sign about the lengths Democrats will go to disparage all who disagree with them.”

Mr. Steele, who has publicly sparred with Mr. Obama, called out the president.

“As the leader of the Democratic Party, President Obama should flatly reject efforts by those in his Party, including Jimmy Carter and Tim Kaine, to inject race into our civil discourse in ways that divide, not unite, Americans,” he said.

The issue quickly split congressional Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California at first said it was time to “move on” to the debate on health care, but she and the White House yielded to senior black Democrats, led by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, who argued that Mr. Wilson’s remark could not go unpunished.

Mr. Clyburn has served as a leader on racial matters and during last year’s Democratic presidential primary contest, criticized former President Bill Clinton for what he felt were racially tinged remarks toward Mr. Obama.

Thomas Mann, senior political analyst at the Brookings Institution, rejected the view expressed by Mr. Carter and others that the public’s anger over Mr. Obama’s policies was rooted in racism.

“Certainly all of the anger at Obama is not based on race, nor is most opposition to his policies rooted in race. Ideology and partisanship explain much more,” Mr. Mann said. “And yet some of the more extreme attacks on him very likely have a racial dimension.”

The issue of race has been swirling around Mr. Obama’s political fortunes for more than 18 months, ever since Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor at a Chicago church attended by the Obamas, spewed vitriolic comments during a widely dispersed sermon, at one point declaring, “God damn America.”

Mr. Obama initially defended his friend but eventually was forced to deliver a speech on race, which he did in Philadelphia in March 2008.

“On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap,” he said then. “On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.”

In April, during a visit to Turkey, Mr. Obama said that the election was, in part, a redemptive act for Americans, a way to prove to the world that they are better than people think.

“I come from a racial minority; my name is very unusual for the United States,” he said. “And so I think people saw my election as proof, as testimony, that although we are imperfect, our society has continued to improve; that racial discrimination has been reduced; that educational opportunity for all people is something that is still available.”

The racially charged incident in Cambridge, however, brought charges that Mr. Obama was, in fact, a kind of reverse racist, siding with the black professor over the white police officer, even though he said several times he didn’t know the facts of the case.

The floodgates opened. Glenn Beck, a popular conservative commentator for Fox News, said: “This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture, I don’t know what it is. I’m not saying that he doesn’t like white people. I’m saying he has a problem. This guy is, I believe, a racist.”