There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an
African-American should not be president.
” – former President Jimmy
Carter, responding Tuesday to a question at a town hall meeting in


This is the column I wanted to avoid.

It seems silly, after all, to waste time debating the existence of
racism in America. But on Tuesday, former President Jimmy Carter forced
my hand.

At a town hall meeting in Atlanta, the man from Plains,
Ga., said what nearly every black American – and, I suspect, most
whites – inherently knew: that much of the animosity demonstrated
toward President Obama has as much to do with race as it does with

(And, just as he should have done as president of the United States, Obama on Wednesday disavowed Carter’s assertion.)

Carter was right, of course, but he didn’t go far enough.

What he failed to explain, or possibly even grasp, is that fear and power are also at play.

Here’s what I mean:

If Census projections hold, somewhere around the year 2050, the U.S.
population will swell to nearly 450 million people, and non-Hispanic
whites will account for just 47 percent of that total.

In other
words, for the first time in recent American history, whites of
European descent will be a minority here. And just as an Autumn chill
foretells the coming winter, Obama’s presidency is, for some, a
frightful confirmation of that predicted shift in power.

That’s what those signs are all about: “We want our country back.”

I witnessed something akin in South Africa in 1994, just before the
election of Nelson Mandela, when fearful whites in that “Rainbow
Nation” held their own brand of town hall meetings.

To be sure,
not every critic who disagrees with Obama should be branded a racist.
Our nation can ill afford to stifle debate on public policy with
unfounded shouts of “Racism!” Hillary Clinton, too, was vilified when
she sought to change the nation’s health care system.

On the
other hand, as Carter also said, it’s hard to explain – aside from the
presence of racism – why those who most vehemently oppose Obama must
resort to such mean and insulting attacks. During last year’s campaign,
you might recall, some preachers on the “Christian Right” went so far
as to tell their congregants that Obama was actually the anti-Christ.

Such slurs have no place in honest political debate.

For all the proud history he made, Obama is to the U.S. presidency what
Jackie Robinson was for baseball – a pioneer, the first.

Future black commanders-in-chief – and there will be others — will pay homage to him for blazing this uncomfortable trail.

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