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Here We Go Again

by CHARLES M. BLOW

This week, former President Jimmy Carter waded into the murky waters of racism: “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 was an overstatement of the role of race.

Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee chairman, shot back: “President Carter is flat-out wrong. This isn’t about race. It is about policy.” That was an underrepresentation of the role of race.

But that’s where we are with race in this country: exaggerations and blanket denials. Race has become a vicious game of bludgeons and crutches, where acerbic accusers run roughshod over earnest egalitarians and political gain is sought even at the expense of enlightenment.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Most Americans know that racism is an issue in this country. The question is how much (that’s where the arguments start) and if — and to what degree — that racism animates critics of the president.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in January found that 71 percent of whites and 85 percent of blacks think that racism in our society is at least somewhat of a problem.

How much discrimination is there? The world may never know, but we admit that we misjudge it.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted in January of last year found that 60 percent of whites agree that they underestimate the amount of discrimination that there is against blacks and 59 percent of blacks agree that they overestimate the amount of racism against them. How can we measure truth when everyone’s twisting it?

A better question might be how much racial prejudice are people aware of and willing to acknowledge.

An ABC News poll released in January asked, “If you honestly assessed yourself, would you say that you have at least some feelings of racial prejudice?” Thirty-eight percent of blacks answered yes, as did 34 percent of whites.

Then the question becomes whether this racial prejudice plays a part in the opposition to the president. Again, it’s impossible to know, but a 2003 study by Rice University researchers and published in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies offers an interesting insight into its potential to be present: “One of the greatest challenges facing black leaders is aversive racism, a subtle but insidious form of prejudice that emerges when people can justify their negative feelings toward blacks based on factors other than race.” Sound familiar?

Racism is real. It is very likely an element of some people’s opposition to President Obama, but everyone who wants smaller government is not a racist.

Let’s stop talking about racism as if it’s black or white. There are many shades of gray.

Once again the bullet is proud to present New York Times Columnist & nationally known commentator Charles M. Blow; heartthrob of women, heartburn of men, with several hundred words of blistering political commentary: I invite you to join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at chblow@nytimes.com.

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