11/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jimmy Carter's Words Give Media Outlets a Gigantic Excuse to Look Hard at Racism and Some Obama Critics

Thanks to Jimmy Carter, America is having a dialog about race that has been long overdue.

It took a former president using blunt language to get the nation's chattering class to focus on an issue that has troubled some since the first first Tea Bag protestor tossed a pouch of Lipton into the Potomac: How much of this hysterical opposition to Barack Obama is about reaction to his race?

Carter had little doubt, telling NBC's Brian Williams: "I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country."

Carter, being a smart man, likely knew this was just the opening news outlets needed; since the White House and Democrats often try to minimize talk about race and Obama, journalists can have a tough time putting this issue on the table without looking like instigators.

Now reporters had an excuse to ask tough questions about opponents of Obama who refuse to believe he is a U.S. citizen, brandish photoshopped images showing him in African tribal garb and insist on calling him a "thug" with little evidence.

This story brings up the typical difficulties media has in covering race stories: discomfort with the topic, the difficulty in talking about race issues when they may not be the dominant element in a story, the difficulty in talking about a subject when neither side on the issue wants to discuss it.

And since this story is about a mostly-white group of people and their reactions to a black president, even the easy crutch of going to black experts on race can't do the job here. This is much more about white culture and its struggle to find the boundaries of acceptable opposition in an increasingly brutal political environment.

 For example. Mark Williams of the Tea Party Express admitted on CNN calling Obama an "Indonesian Muslim and welfare thug" on his blog, just after insisting he saw few tea party protestors using racially-charged arguments.

Race-baiting conservative talk host Rush Limbaugh turned Carter's words into an argument against electing a black president at all. "Any criticism of an African American president's polices or positions or statements is racist and that's it," he declared Wednesday. "Therefore the question: Can this nation really have an African American president?"

But I think Carter's statement raises a different question: Will conservatives move to condemn those who make racist arguments against Obama, so opposition can proceed against him that isn't based on race?

What I saw Wednesday, was a lot of conservatives refusing to acknowledge an important fact -- just as you can't dismiss every Obama critic as a racist, you can't pretend there isn't a racial subtext to some of his opposition. Instead, figures such as Michael Steele, Charles Krauthammer and Mary Matalin refused to consider the notion that some Obama critics may be using racist language and imagery.

I don't think it's fair to call Joe Wilson's outburst during Obama's speech last week an expression of racism or prejudice. But there are plenty of other voices out there criticizing Obama that are less ambiguous -- many of them in media.

What else can you say when Limbaugh goes on air to talk about a white kid getting beaten up on a school bus, declaring "in Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering"? Police eventually said the fight occurred over seating on the bus, not race issues.

Those who know their history will remember that civil rights activists were often accused of being Marxist and Communists in the 1960s, as opponents of integration tried whipping up broad, irrational fears against people who wanted to change their way of life. It's a classic strategy of painting people of color as exotic, dangerous outsiders -- something we've seen reprised in recent months regarding Obama.

That's why claims that Obama is Marxist or socialist have an odd ring now. It seems a strange repeat of the same tactics used against Martin Luther King Jr. more than 40 years ago (King did, toward the end of his life, advocate for economic justice principles which drew similar cries of socialism) . Cynics might say those who oppose Obama now are so hungry for support they are willing to overlook insulting language and imagery to serve their greater goals.

Too often, these debates occur outside the lens of history. But race friction in America is all about history; there are still plenty of Americans who remember the tactics used the segregate and subjugate people of color 40 years ago -- seeing them surface again, with little official sanction, must feel like a dispiriting sort of deja vu.

Republican have often been accused of tolerating intolerance to reach their goals. Seems to me that visibly denouncing those who are using race-tinged attacks to criticize Obama -- and El Rushbo is exhibit A -- would offer the strongest step toward inoculating presidential critics from claims of race-baiting.