Jimmy Carter’s Difficult Truth

The dismissive response from both Republicans and Democrats to the former president's comments on race shows why we need more, not less, discussion about the issue in America.

Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

We can, of course, never really know whether President Carter is right. That’s the nature of racism in its modern form. Absent hurled epithets we can only surmise – based on history, context, comparison and our own experience – whether racism lies at the bottom of some of the right’s responses to President Obama. But certainly President Carter’s views are worthy of serious consideration and respect. Countless psychological and social science studies have identifed the role of unconscious racism in our society. We know that deeply held racial beliefs and stereotypes can infect our conduct and views. We also know how powerfully historic forces continue to resonate in our political life.

But somehow, even as we celebrate and acknowledge the ongoing influence of some historical influences on our contemporary experiences and values, we insist that our country’s fairly recent history of blatant and extreme racism has no ongoing significance for how some are responding to our president. We have produced a society in which we readily acknowledge that racism exists, and yet we will never own up to any specific manifestations of it.

Perhaps most disturbingly, other whites will observe the treatment meted out to our former President and become even more reluctant to publicly acknowledge the ongoing existence of racism in our society.


Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.