News Analysis: Obama, Jimmy Carter, Racial Politics and Immigration Reform

Less than a year ago, at the dawn of the Obama era, there was a lot of talk about how the nation had just elected its first post-racial president. With his multi-racial and multi-religious background, and African immigrant roots, Barack Obama represented the hope of millions that the country was moving beyond its long, tragic history of divisive racial politics.

To be sure, Obama’s election as the first black president of the United States was an historic event of immense significance. But the idea of a post-racial presidency was a fantasy. Comments this week by former President Jimmy Carter reminded us that racial politics and prejudice are alive and well in America.

“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’s African American,” Carter told NBC’s Brian Williams.

The issue of immigration was directly implicated in Carter’s remarks. The now infamous shout of “You lie” by Representative Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) during President Obama’s address to Congress last week came after the president asserted in his speech that undocumented immigrants would not be covered under the proposed health care overhaul.

“I think it’s based on racism,” Carter was quoted by the Washington Post as saying of Wilson’s outburst. The former president made the remark in response to a question at a public forum on Tuesday at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

The entire episode — Wilson’s shout, Carter’s critique, and all the various charges and counter charges, accusations and denials flying around Washington and in the media – suggest a very rocky future for immigration reform.

If President Carter is right about the racial subtext of opposition to the president than the angry exchanges we’ve seen in the health care debate may seem mild when, and if, Congress gets around to considering an immigration bill.

The question of what to do about the estimated 12-million, mostly Hispanic, immigrants who are not authorized to be in this country could prove to more incendiary and divisive than anything this country has seen in a long time.

Both the Obama White House and the head of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, rejected Carter’s remarks. But if the former president is correct in his assessment, the country could reach a racial boiling point in a debate over the fate of millions of brown people, led by a black president, and fueled by the fury of conservative whites as well as disillusioned Latinos and Asians who voted for Obama believing he would champion their cause.

Fear of such a confrontation may help explain why Mr. Obama has risked alienating his Latino and pro-immigrant supporters by repeatedly delaying immigration reform legislation until next year.

This week we got a taste of what may be coming when the immigration debate begins in earnest. A leading pro-immigrant group, America’s Voice, accused a prominent conservative organization, The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), of being a “designated hate group.” In response, FAIR’s director Dan Stein told the Washington Post that the charge was false and outdated.

This back and forth from two groups on opposite ends of the issue is not unusual. But the tone of the exchange suggests that the veneer of civility that has characterized the conversation up to this point is wearing thinner.

When politicians talk openly about race in this country, their critics invariably accuse them of “playing the race card.” It happened again this week when Michael Steele, the first African-American to lead the Republican Party, responded to Jimmy Carter’s remarks by saying: “Playing the race card shows that Democrats are willing to deal from the bottom of the deck.”

But what if race really is the issue, or at least part of the issue?

In the debate over the nation’s immigration system, race may indeed be a factor, along with the economy, and national security concerns. But you don’t hear many accusations about advocates ‘playing the homeland security card.’ Race is in a category all by itself.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama took on the issue of race in an historic speech in Philadelphia. In his remarks, then-Senator Obama rejected his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, for using “incendiary language to express views that have the potential …to widen the racial divide.”

The speech was widely praised, and helped Mr. Obama diffuse an issue that had the potential to derail his candidacy. With his health care plan in the balance, and immigration reform waiting in the wings, it may be time for the president to come back to the subject of race, and again talk openly to the American people about their fears as well as their hopes.

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