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Debate on Race Emerges as Obama’s Policies Take Shape

September 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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The question of race has simmered on the back burner of the national debate over President Obama's policy agenda. Gwen Ifill talks to columnists and academics about the role of race in the current political climate.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, an old debate feeding new discussion about the president and his policies.

The question of race has simmered on the back burner of the national debate over President Obama’s agenda, but former President Jimmy Carter turned up the heat yesterday.

JIMMY CARTER, former President of the United States: 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.

And 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. It’s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply.

GWEN IFILL: Eight months into the Obama presidency, there has been no shortage of the animosity President Carter spoke of.

PROTESTORS: No Obama-care! No Obama-care!

GWEN IFILL: Much of it seemed to come to a boil during heated town hall meetings about health care reform.

PROTESTOR: Say no to socialism!

GWEN IFILL: In some circles, the opposition quickly shifted to race-based critique, much of it found in images shared across the Internet or on conservative talk shows.

GLENN BECK, Fox News host: 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.

GWEN IFILL: Forty-seven radio talk show hosts gathered in Washington yesterday, many of them to oppose the president’s policies. Roger Hedgecock of Radio America Networks said that does not mean they are opposing the president.

ROGER HEDGECOCK, nationally syndicated talk show host: I mean, the first reaction I get to any criticism of Barack Obama in the printed word is, “Well, you’re a racist.” Well, no, I just disagree with him on health care. That somehow you’re a racist if you believe that, or if you oppose the president, you’re this or that. I just think that we ought to open up and understand that we do have a democracy, people are entitled to their point of view, and you ought to have a respectful hearing of all points of view.

GWEN IFILL: White House officials prefer to stay above the fray.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: The president does not believe that the criticism comes based on the color of his skin.

GWEN IFILL: Gibbs said the president would rather stay focused on policy.

We take a closer look now at the issue of race in our political discourse with Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who worked for the Obama campaign; Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of the libertarian Reason magazine; John McWhorter, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.

Professor Harris-Lacewell, let’s start with you. How much do you think race is a part of what we are hearing, this anger we’ve been hearing during the past couple of months especially?

Racism vs. political disagreement

Melissa Harris-Lacewell
Princeton University
[R]acial animus and bigotry has found its way into the opposition in a way that's quite distracting from the principled positions that the opposition may have.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL, Princeton University: Well, certainly no one can quantify the percentage or the amount of criticism and exactly what it's coming from.

There's no question that people have principled disagreement with the president. There's also no question that, if one has principled disagreement with a person of color and you choose not to express it simply because that person is black or Latino or Asian, then that is actually more racist than going ahead and expressing your disagreement.

But I think it's also clear -- and this is what President Carter asked us to think about -- that, in this particular context of American history, at this moment with a black president, we need to be particularly careful about how we frame and how we talk about our disagreements, because it's clear, also, that racial animus and bigotry has found its way into the opposition in a way that's quite distracting from the principled positions that the opposition may have.

GWEN IFILL: Cornell Belcher, you spent a great deal of time in the last couple of years of your life measuring this for the Obama campaign. Now that you see him actually in office having to act on some of his policies, how much of this is leftover bad feeling about race, and how much of it is bad feeling about policy?

CORNELL BELCHER, Democratic pollster: Well, I think you can't separate ideology from adverse racial attitudes, and I think it's sort of a false conversation when people say, "Is it racism? Oh, no, it's ideology." We can quantify that the two do share a similar space, where you find that those on the furthest fringe of the right are, in fact, quantifiably those who hold the highest proportion of racial adverse attitudes.

GWEN IFILL: So you're saying there's evidence to support this notion that if you are very angry at the president for policy reasons, for some small portion or a large portion, as President Carter suggested, that is bound or driven by race?

CORNELL BELCHER: No, I'm not saying it's bound or driven by race, but I think we should understand that racially adverse attitudes, as well as far-right sort of conservative thinking, share a similar space.

Now, I'm not saying they're causal, but they certainly share a similar space, where you find those voters with the furthest right sort of ideological bent are also those with the highest percentage of racial-adverse attitudes.

So I'm not surprised when I see some of what I saw on the lawn, with sort of the Tea Party thing going on, some of the signs I saw and some of the attitudes I have there. I mean, I'm not making a value judgment of it, but you can quantify that those voters are the ones who hold the most racially adverse attitudes. So it does slip into the conversation.

GWEN IFILL: Matt Welch, what do you think of that? Reason magazine has covered a lot of the Tea Party protests and the concerns. Have you been picking up that that space that's occupied by people who are unhappy about the president's race is also occupied by people who are unhappy with his policies?

MATT WELCH, Reason Magazine: Here's how I approach the problem. If this is true, if there's a significant percentage of people who are motivated by, let's say, racial anxiety, not outright racism, in their opposition to Obama, then what else would we see? How would we expect that to manifest itself?

I would expect it to manifest itself at minimum with people expressing, whether it's in their signage or in their conversation, concerns about hot-button racial issues: affirmative action, immigration, welfare queens, and whatnot.

What I saw going out in the crowd and actually talking to people was almost none of that. We saw a lot of different signs out there, but the vast majority of people that I talked to and the displays that they were making was actually pretty coherent. They were against government overreach and spending in their lives and in the economy.

And I saw a precious little -- and I even tried to tease people out, like, "Ah, what do you think about that Obama character? Is he legitimate? Is he not?" A lot of people said, "Hey, I like the guy. I disagree with his policies."

So I have a hard time going to the next step and assuming that their motivation is something that is somehow sublimated that I can't measure.

'Two different countries racially'

Cornell Belcher
Democratic Polster
[U]nless we're having these conversations and understanding each side, we can't move forward.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, John McWhorter? Is there a subliminal message here? Or is Matt Welch right, that maybe we're overstating what the source of people's discontent is?

JOHN MCWHORTER, senior fellow, Manhattan Institute: Well, it's a difficult issue, and that's an inherent part of this, that we really can't know where to draw the line, because we don't have the psychological tools yet.

But I personally feel that, for example, Joe Wilson would not have yelled the way he did if the president in an alternate universe had become, say, John Edwards. It's just a -- but it's a gut feeling. We can't know.

And that's why I feel that, with all of this -- let's say that racism was a part of it; it's my gut feeling that it is -- we're at the point where the question is how significant it is. Whatever role racism is playing in all of these criticisms, it's not going to chase the man out of office. It's not going to make much of a difference in whether he does or doesn't get re-elected. And the racism itself is not going to derail health care or anything else.

So my question is not whether racism is involved -- I suspect that it is -- but exactly what are we talking about and why are we elevating it as if there's something alarmist about it, when maybe it's just a rather mundane fact?

GWEN IFILL: So you're suggesting, John, that there -- even if this is racism, even if it's the worst possible interpretation in people's actions, it doesn't really matter that much?

JOHN MCWHORTER: You know, frankly, yeah. I think that there is racism that does matter, but when we're talking about these kinds of attitudes, these tinctures of feeling that we can't quite even get a handle on, it seems to me we outlawed legalized discrimination and segregation, and socially we have proscribed open bigotry, and so it's practically equivalent to pedophilia, and that is fine.

But are we ever going to reach a point when, as human beings, we can eliminate all race-based bias completely? I don't see it. I don't know how that would happen. And so what we're seeing is a rather unfortunate kind of breach of civility. I'm not sure how perfect we can get, and we have so many other things to worry about.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you this, Cornell, and then I want to ask Melissa Harris this, as well, which is, let's flip this a little bit. He mentioned John Edwards. If it had been John Edwards, perhaps Joe Wilson wouldn't have hollered. If it were Hillary Clinton and it was a gender issue, can you imagine that this would have -- we'd be having this same debate based on gender?

CORNELL BELCHER: I think you have to understand sort of the passion and the brutality that has been our history of race matters in this country is different than what it has been around gender.

I think there are absolutely stereotypes that every woman running for office has to deal with, she has to overcome, the same way there's absolute stereotypes that every African-American or Hispanic running for office has to deal with and overcome in order to inoculate themselves from that.

I don't think that it would be as passionate, but would Hillary Clinton or a woman, you know, have to deal with the same -- with stereotypes having to do with gender? Absolutely. It's part of the American society.

GWEN IFILL: And it's a part of the American society that this president should speak to or should just let play itself out? I mean, do you agree with John McWhorter that this is just -- even if it is racism, so what?

CORNELL BELCHER: Well, see, I mean, I'm not calling them racists in a way that's making a value judgment of them. Certainly, they -- a certain piece on the far right that hold adverse racial attitudes, but we have to understand those adverse racial attitudes in order to move the conversation ahead.

We're two very different countries racially, where right now you have a majority of whites who, frankly, do think we're post-racial because they think African-Americans have the same advantages as they do, while African-Americans do not. And you have a large swath of whites right now who are just as likely to see reverse discrimination as an issue as classic discrimination.

So unless we're having these conversations and understanding each side, we can't move forward.

America's racial tolerance

Matt Welch
Reason Magazine
I think we lose sight sometimes of the fact that we've made incredible progress. We have a much more tolerant country, I think, than people realize.

GWEN IFILL: We just lost Melissa Harris-Lacewell for a moment. We'll get back to her.

But, Matt Welch, I want to ask you about this reverse discrimination idea. Have you been hearing that, as well, people saying, not only is it not -- am I not a person who's guilty of racial bias, but, in fact, people are directing it at me?

MATT WELCH: You know, not that much. You hear some of that. But, I mean, think about it. We just had a 2008 election. This is seven years, you know, after we were attacked by 19 foreign hijackers, and a guy who is not very well experienced in foreign policy, whose middle name is Hussein, who is black, he wins overwhelmingly in this country, I think we lose sight sometimes of the fact that we've made incredible progress. We have a much more tolerant country, I think, than people realize.

And we didn't actually see much in the way of racial politics in the 2008 election. We haven't seen it in the leadership of the Republican Party with their last three major presidential candidates. So I think that we're looking for this sort of culture war bogeyman that's largely gone to the sidelines.

The white resentment candidate in 2008 for the Republican side maybe was Tom Tancredo. He got drubbed; he got nowhere. So I think it's important to realize that maybe there is some of that racial anxiety in there. I assume that there is, but it's not a dominant or, I don't think, even a significant animating feature in either Republican politics or American politics, because racism isn't popular.

GWEN IFILL: John McWhorter, what do you make of that theory, that we're hearing -- for instance, I'm curious about whether Jimmy Carter having said this counts more than your having said this, if you had said what he said?

MATT WELCH: My audio went out.

JOHN MCWHORTER: I actually think that it is a very important thing that Jimmy Carter has mentioned this. I don't think there's any harm in pointing out the fact that racism may or even does play a part in what's going on.

But it just seems to me that it used to be that we were talking about how the racism out there might keep Barack Obama from the White House. I found that to be a very urgent issue. This time, we're saying that the racism, well, what? We're really just describing something that's not going to go away any time soon and I don't think really has that much effect upon the way our lives and the way the government of our lives is going to be going.

GWEN IFILL: So you're saying...

JOHN MCWHORTER: And so, as a result, I just think that, really, it's like saying there are mosquitoes. Yes, there always will be. But we have other things to think about than the fact that there are mosquitoes.

GWEN IFILL: So whether it's Jeremiah Wright or Henry Louis Gates, Jr., or what Jimmy Carter said about this, the Tea Baggers or whoever, it's always going to be with us?

JOHN MCWHORTER: Well, in some form, it is, and in some cases we need to sound the alarm. In other cases, I think there are just bigger fish to fry.

GWEN IFILL: Bigger fish to fry, Matt Welch?

MATT WELCH: You know, what I would encourage people to do is -- while continuing to look for legitimate expressions or illegitimate expressions of racism in a country that's been torn by the issue and by the existence of it in times past, also keep an open mind about taking people at their word about what they're talking about.

The one way that I see that this discussion has been somewhat corrosive or the potential to be corrosive is that people have been actively using the sort of broad brush of the anti-Obama protesters as all birthers or, you know, racists or whatever as a way to not listen to what they're actually protesting and saying.

It's a way to de-legitimize people from the debate. I think that's unfortunate and it doesn't lead to a kind of advancing of any kind of discussion.

So balancing those things is an impossible task, and we're part of that process right here, and we should continue it, but keep an open mind of actually listening to what people say they're interested in.

GWEN IFILL: Quick question: What should the president say, anything?

CORNELL BELCHER: I think the president needs to focus on passing health care.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Cornell Belcher, Matt Welch, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, and John McWhorter, thank you all very much.

GWEN IFILL: Cornell Belcher, you were smiling just now when he made that point. Why?

CORNELL BELCHER: I was smiling, because, frankly, I think, you know, we're not going to pretend that racial attitudes and sort of the race card isn't still played in American politics. It has been for a while.

I mean, I remember a couple of years back, you know, the chairman of the Republican Party apologizing for the Southern strategy. So I don't think we're that far removed from it that it stopped being played and is still a part of American politics.

I think the beauty is, we're overcoming it and you see a president like Barack Obama was able to overcome those stereotypes in a way that many black people didn't think would happen in their lifetime.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I can hear all of you.

GWEN IFILL: Yeah, Melissa Harris-Lacewell is back with us. I want to bring you back into this conversation. Tell us about, do you think that this discussion that we've been having, that we are having right now is healthy or is it corrosive?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I think it's just slightly misguided. We're pretending as though racism is a thing that we can identify. You know, is that an apple or is it an orange? And then we can have an argument about the characteristics of it and determine whether it's an apple or an orange.

But race, of course, is socially constructed. It's given meaning in the context of history and time and space. And so the big question on determining whether or not something is racist or the impulse is racist or if there's racial animus, we have to be careful about who has a right to describe, define, and call it that.

It's almost universally true that nativist sentiment, nationalist sentiment, racist sentiment is not called that by those with those impulses and that it's, in fact, people like President Carter, African-Americans in ordinary conversation who are saying, "Wait a minute. I feel uncomfortable with how my fellow citizens are representing this critique."

And I think we fail if we don't allow those voices to have, you know, a very strong say in whether or not these behaviors constitute racism.

Just a really good example. There was a time when you could use the word "negro." It was the appropriate word to use when talking about African-Americans. If you use "negro" now in polite conversation, not in historical conversation, it's considered a term of racism.

And that gets redefined by black people themselves. So I think we have to listen to racially marginalized people tell us what these expressions mean for them as citizens.