Now, in vastly different ways, two men from the South have let the American people know that the hair that’s been standing up on our necks since November on matters related to race has been there for a reason. That foreboding, that disquiet in the collective unconscious isn’t just a suspicion.
It took a congressman from South Carolina to make that clear when he shouted down the president of the United States in a joint session of Congress last week.
And it took a peanut farmer from Georgia, the 39th President of the United States, to put that congressman’s heckling into a frightening perspective.
President Jimmy Carter, in an interview by NBC News anchor Brian Williams that was released on Tuesday, spoke about the growing tide of apparently racial animosity in America, and did it in the genteel, measured terms of a man with some familiarity speaking this awful truth to power.
“I think 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 is African American,” Carter said.
Carter, tapping into his knowledge of the South and the nation beyond it, said bluntly that “that racism inclination still exists, and I think it has 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 it grieves me and concerns me very deeply.”
He said it elsewhere Tuesday, at a town hall held at the Carter Center in Atlanta. “There is an inherent feeling among many people in this country that an African American ought not to be president, and ought not to be given the same respect as if he were white.”
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Years from now, maybe after some ugly flash of the nation’s racial realities, or some hopefully nonviolent evidence of nativism engenders its own terrorist presence on this soil, historians may look back at Carter’s statements as the brightest, most clarion warning of the potential for racial apocalypse in the United States. It’s sure as hell certainly not the first.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has warned the nation for years of a rising riptide of intolerance, proven by an almost viral spread of hate and extremist groups across the 50 states. The most recent warnings came this spring:
From white power skinheads decrying "President Obongo" at a racist gathering in rural Missouri, to neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen hurling epithets at Latino immigrants from courthouse steps in Oklahoma, to anti-Semitic black separatists calling for death to Jews on bustling street corners in several East Coast cities, hate group activity in the U.S. was disturbing and widespread throughout 2008, as the number of hate groups operating in America continued to rise. Last year, 926 hate groups were active in the U.S., up more than 4% from 888 in 2007. That's more than a 50% increase since 2000, when there were 602 groups.
And the brute, blind brands of stupid deployed by conservative extremists in last year’s presidential campaign were themselves clear proof to anyone of how deep this strain of willful ignorance exists, and how easily it could be exploited.
Ancient history? It happened on Sept. 9, the day of Wilson’s meltdown, outside a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Jimmy Carter’s state of Georgia.
Morrow police arrested Troy Dale West after reviewing a video surveillance tape that appeared to show West beating and kicking Tasha Hill, a black Army reservist, yelling racial slurs at her as he attacked her in full view of the Army officer’s 7-year-old daughter. Police have referred the case to the FBI, saying it may be a violation of the Federal Hate Crime Law, Capt. James Callaway of the Morrow Police Department told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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What Carter has taken a righteous, principled stand against is a strain of evil with a long history of three ingredients: fear, economic discontent and an easy, vulnerable target. Its precedents through history should worry you.
In Weimar Germany, Adolf Hitler focused populist rage over an imploding domestic economy, an economy so bad that the exchange rate for deutschmarks made billionaires of paupers who still couldn’t buy a pound of butter. Hitler’s convenient scapegoating and victimization of German Jews, and later European Jews in general, set the brush fires for the Holocaust, and World War II.
In Cambodia after the Vietnam War, in his bid to create an agrarian communist utopia, Pol Pot manipulated populist anger into class warfare, pitting his Khmer Rouge against politicians, intellectuals and their friends and associates, an us-vs.-them strategy that led to “the killing fields,” and the deaths of perhaps 2 million Cambodians by starvation and execution.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein exploited an 800-year-old internal hatred, and nurtured a culture of tribal rule for 23 years, keeping his Sunni sect in power with a campaign of domestic repression. In 1988, he terrorized Kurdish separatists in his own country, ordering a lethal gas attack that killed at least 5,000 people. Those were apparently only some of Saddam’s citizen victims: There are apparently no reliable figures for the number of Iraqi dissidents and Shia Muslims killed during Saddam's presidency; some estimates have placed the figure at between 60,000 and 150,000 people.
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It’s of course a huge stretch to fully connect the rise of Hitler’s panoramic criminality, the discontent of the Tea Baggers and an historically-challenged heckler in the pews of the House of Representatives. But what unites them is troubling. What unites them is an embrace of distortion, a willingness to objectify, to tweak the truth, to exploit the weakness, to make things worse, often for people already on the receiving end of the worst there is.
And that’s where the birthers and the deathers come in, and the nativists and Joes the plumber, the Stormfronts and Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Malkins and Limbaughs.
It’s their eagerness to distort and manipulate that leads Americans to think that the laws and social contracts that bind us as a society are no longer in effect, that it’s open season on people who don’t look like them, that it’s condoned behavior to repeatedly assault an Army reservist while using racial epithets; that it’s all right to hope the president of the United States fails, that it’s OK to call that president a racist or another Hitler — that it’s socially acceptable, on the floor of the House of Representatives, to call that first black American president a liar to his face.
The trickle-down is already happening. We’ve seen where it’s leading: to Tea Party protests that pervert the image of the president into a witch doctor; to a California mayor’s cheap attempt at Internet humor, a photo-illustration of the White House lawn festooned with watermelons; to the virulent attacks on Kanye West, whose admittedly foolish grandstanding at the MTV Video Music Awards led to a firestorm of racist, N-word laden tweets on Twitter … racial hatred 140 characters at a time.
Jimmy Carter has called the question: Which way are we going? Years from now, historians will recognize that. Years from now, America will reckon with the consequences of how we answer that question today.
Image credits: Carter: Still from NBC News broadcast. Troy West: Morrow Police Department. Scott swastika, Obama Care poster at Tea Bag protest in Michigan: Stills from MSNBC cable.