Jimmy Carter Got Joe Wilson’s Number

No surprise that a former president, steeped in southern mores, could see it so clearly.  Also no surprise that, once again, he spoke his mind:

“I live in the South and I’ve seen the South come a long way,” he said. But, “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.” (See “Carter’s Racism Charge Sparks War.“)

Racism among us is inescapable.  It can even be considered “normal,” in the sense that kids grow up in our culture with an awareness of racial difference and a certain anxiety about what that difference means.  Newsweek made that point in a very useful cover story last week (See “See Baby Discriminate”).  I had also made it last fall in a posting on this blog (See “Racism in the Election,” August 31st, 2008).

But the key point is the difference between racial perceptions, racial discomfort and, even, racial fears and the hostile and discriminatory racial acts they can lead to.  Virulent racism is what we have to be on guard against, and that is what we saw in Joe Wilson’s uncivil and disrespectful outburst last week.

It is important, then, that he was censured for his acts, not his feelings. Persecuting him for racism would be a mistake.  And I think the President is also right to refrain from making the accusation of racism himself.  The victim of an attack is always at risk for putting himself in a worse position if he protests.  He offers himself up to a storm of criticism for being “too sensitive,” “wrongheaded,” “unfair,” “just looking for it,” etc.   etc.  It is the job of others to come to the defense of the victim and protest what was said and done.

And many others have. Calling attention to our racism is one of the ways in which we can be more alert to what we don’t know we know about it.  And the more we do get to know about it, the better the chances we can keep it from getting out of hand.