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Debate on Race Emerges as Obama’s Policies Take Shape

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?

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