The important thing about former President Jimmy Carter’s declaration that the blowback against President Barack Obama has to do with the fact that “he’s a black man” is not how true it is, but how sad it is.
Black people have been saying this all along, but when an old Southern governor who understands the Old South says it on national television, it has the weight of a revelation.
It is clear that the people making the most noise are the ones who came out on the losing end of the last election, an election that so embodied the idea of progress that it felt like it was leaving a lot of things behind. But, apparently, the old, tired racism that tries to relegate black people to permanent second-class citizenship in the United States stayed with us.
The sad, and tiresome, part is that we have to have that same damn conversation over and over again. We can take some comfort in the fact that part of the intensity we see from the vein-popping angry populism of the birthers and the tea-baggers, the Joe Wilsons and the Glenn Becks flows from a desperate recognition that they are on the losing end of a historic argument. Obama’s presidency is the checkmate against an ugly America that they want to preserve, but that they see fading not-so-slowly in the rearview mirror.
We are witnessing the final death throes of Jim Crow America, but it is draining to have to keep explaining that fair is fair and equal is equal, and that is a proposition that requires the country to change from what they so fondly remember.
I expect that the fallout from Carter’s comments is a wider, uglier debate about how racist we are as a country, and we just had one of those in 2008; the right side won and the Obama presidency is the result. Why can’t the losers learn to live with that? Why can’t they see the progress for what it is?
American racism is a distorting agent, and like so many times before when we start basking in the glow of racial progress, something happens to remind us that the journey behind was only preparation for the one ahead. Here we go again.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.