12/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jimmy Carter and the Race Card

As a baby-boomer, born a year before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education
Supreme Court decision, it seems like a very short time ago when overt racial segregation, and both de jure and de facto racism were accepted forms of behavior in our society. In my lifetime we have seen massive changes and challenges to the status quo: Rosa Parks, lunch counter demonstrations, James Meredith, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, Affirmative Action, Thurgood Marshall, Malcom X, Freedom Rides, the Pettis Bridge, the Mississippi Freedom Delegation, and the War on Poverty, just to name a few.

Yet here we are, almost a decade into the new millennium and the echoes and ghosts of a darker chapter in race relations once again threaten to dim the sunshine of equality that so many have paid such a steep price to advance. Since the election of Barack Obama there has been a steady and dangerous concentration of storm clouds on the horizon. Recently, the emergence of teabagger revolutionaries, fueled by secessionist fervor, given legitimacy by compliant and complicit media outlets like Fox Noise, revered by "punidiots " like Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity and others, and buttressed by a conservative ideology that abhors progress and progressive thinking, has raised the tension meter to a dangerously high level.

Former President Jimmy Carter has recently lent his considerable credibility and political/personal experience with race to a growing chorus of voices that are drawing particular attention to the ugly tone of racism that is permeating substantive discussion of issues that will define who we are and where we are headed as a nation. No one can seriously doubt the sincerity of Jimmy Carter's dedication and commitment to social justice. Regardless of how one judges the success of his presidential tenure, Jimmy Carter has set the bar very high in the nearly three decades he has been out of office with respect to advancing economic and social justice worldwide.

Carter is a product of the South; he has confronted and addressed racial injustice since his early days growing up in Southwest Georgia. I attended college in South Georgia in the early 1970's and witnessed firsthand the vestiges of racism which abounded in a small, rural southern town seventeen years after Brown v. Board. I shall never forget the rusting sign still hanging in Statesboro in 1971 with an arrow pointing down an alley which read "Colored Motel". I can still recall the billboards along Route 301 in North and South Carolina on my way to school touting the benefits of joining the White Citizens Council.

I shall never forget the time I spent running an athletic and educational program at the Bulloch County Correctional Institute as a college student, spending weekends with members of Georgia's famed chain gang, neatly segregated into two dorms: one white, one black. Since our county was dry, liquid refreshment required a 13 mile road trip to the county line, where a package store literally was perched on the county line, and inside were pool tables separated by jail like bars designating a black side and a white side.

Racism, of course, is not the sole explanation for the personal and hateful rhetoric that has been leveled at the President, it may not even be the driving rationalization, but to suggest that it plays little or no role is I believe both wishful thinking and naïve. I do not subscribe to the notion that any attack on Obama has to be racially motivated, I actually reject it. If the attacks were purely substantive in nature and reflected a thoughtful consideration of differing approaches to a common end goal I would not even mention it. However, there is a venomous rant at work here that is a reflection of the geopolitical reality that is evident in our national elections: namely, a predominance and unity of opposition from states affiliated with the old Confederacy. In particular, and I have written about this in past posts, look at the teabag resolutions pending in state legislatures asserting that the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution gives a legal justification for secession. Although there are states entertaining such resolutions that are not from the Old South, every State in the Old South is in play.

Jimmy Carter knows this region and he has witnessed firsthand the changes that have occurred there. He is also aware of the renewed and lingering hatred that also is evident there. I have known and watched him over the years and believe that his integrity and honesty are unquestioned. For him to wander into the political minefield of racial politics would require a firm and unshakeable belief that we are truly in danger of slipping backwards in our quest for a color blind society. It behooves us all not to blindly dismiss his warnings, and I say this with all due respect to those who wish to minimize these admonitions. And the latest actions by those who are now under Secret Service investigation regarding a questionnaire on the internet asking whether or not the President should be assassinated bring special attention to this apparently clear and present danger.

This ought to be a clarion call to all those who wish to advance our society and culture to a place where all are "judged by the conduct of their character, not the color of their skin", to quote Dr. King. This ought to involve conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, Northerners and Southerners, Christians and non-Christians, rural and urban dwellers alike. Racism has no role in either partisan or ideological politics. Now is the time for conservative and religious leaders to stand tall and reject the bigotry that has characterized the actions and activities of the birthers, teabaggers, and anti-immigration, anti-Muslim self-described "patriots" who are garnering an inordinate share of attention on the stage of public discourse today.

It is important to nip this in the bud before it gets out of hand. We as a society must address and confront even the appearance of racism, if one were to assume that what we are witnessing is not racism at all but merely a political calculation to use racism as a diversion from the actual issues. Even an appearance of racism is enough to engage in a national dialogue. If President Carter is wrong then we are in better shape than many believe. If he is even remotely right we need to get on with averting a potential catastrophic development in our societal evolution.