When Kanye West rushed onstage and grabbed the microphone away from Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards the other day, was he being a racist? Or was he just being rude?
Me, I thought he was just being rude. In any case, he apologized. And life moved on.
When Serena Williams yelled at a line judge at the U.S. Open Saturday night, was Williams being a racist? Or was she just losing control of her temper during a hard-fought match?
Me, I thought Williams was just losing control of her temper during a hard-fought match. In any case, she apologized. And life moved on.
When Joe Wilson yelled at President Barack Obama during a joint session of Congress last Wednesday, was Wilson being a racist? Or was he just being an incredible jerk?
Me, I thought he was just being an incredible jerk. But others thought he was being a racist. (After the incident, he called his wife, and she asked him, "Joe, who's the nut that hollered out?" And he said, "It was me." And she said, "No, really, who did it?")
In any case, Wilson apologized. But life has not moved on.
First, the House of Representatives demanded that Wilson apologize again, and when he refused, the House passed a "resolution of disapproval" against him.
I watched the House debate figuring that at least one or two of the representatives would denounce Wilson for racism. But not a single one did. Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland who is the House majority leader, said he knew Wilson and, "I have found him a man of measured conduct" in the past. Hoyer said he was "surprised" by Wilson's behavior.
Jim Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, who represents the only majority-black district in his state, had every opportunity to call Wilson a racist but didn't even hint at it. Clyburn said it was all a matter of civility. "There are certain things that you do and certain things you don't do," Clyburn said. "And when you do the things that you don't do, the proper thing is to show contrition."
President Obama, who could have used Wilson to create a "teachable moment" on race in America, did not. Instead, Obama said he "appreciated" Wilson's apology, though Obama did think the incident was an example of the "coarsening of our political dialogue."
It looked like things would move on. And then came Jimmy Carter, who seems to believe that if something is worth stating, it is worth overstating.
"I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he's a black man," Carter told NBC's Brian Williams.
I think it is impossible to disagree that some of the animosity directed against Obama is racist. You can't look at some of the disgusting signs that people have carried at protest marches and listen to some of the deplorable things people have said and believe otherwise.
But Carter has decided that "an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity" is racist. How he quantifies that, I don't know.
I do remember that the extreme right wing also hated Bill Clinton, a white guy. Clinton was accused of being a cocaine smuggler and having murdered his friend Vince Foster and all sorts of other dastardly things. (And this was way before Monica.)
Also, having been in college in the late '60s, I do remember the extreme left wing hating not only some Republicans, but some Democrats, too. ("Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" was not a love song.)
So extreme feelings can be based on things other than race. And people can act rudely and not be racists.
But Jimmy Carter sees it differently when it comes to the attacks against Obama. He says extreme attacks against Obama "have been influenced to a major degree by a belief that he should not be president because he happens to be African-American."
He could be right. He could be wrong. But as Jason Zengerle, a senior editor at the New Republic, wrote, if Carter "wants to help Obama, he should just shut up."
Why? Because Carter is describing an America that Obama says does not exist. Certainly there is racism in America, but Obama has always insisted that it is not as big a deal as some think. (And he was, after all, elected president. Let's not forget that as we scourge ourselves.)
Obama officially took issue with Carter through White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. "The president does not believe that the criticism comes based on the color of his skin," Gibbs said. "We understand that people have disagreements with some of the decisions that we've made."
So is it not race, but merely disagreement over decisions? Or does race still lurk? Along with rudeness. And extremism. And a coarsening of the political dialogue.