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A Black-and-White Question

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009; 9:20 AM

Is it racial?

Are the protesters, tea-partiers, birthers, deathers, doomsayers and hecklers motivated, at least in part, by a distinct discomfort with the country's first black president?

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Or is that a smear against disgruntled Americans who have every right to express their dissent?

There is no definitive answer, of course, since we are talking about millions of people, from Joe Wilson, the disrespectful congressman who's now raised $700,000 for his "you lie" outburst, to the woman who told Arlen Specter that Obama is trying to transform the US of A "into Russia, into a socialist country."

But I began to suspect that race was a factor for at least some critics when I heard them shouting about "the Constitution" and "taking our country back." Maybe Obama's health-care plan is an awful idea and his budget is way too big, but how exactly is any of this unconstitutional? Clearly, for some folks, there's a deeper rage at the man occupying the White House.

I do think we all need to be careful about tarring the critics with a broad brush. Dissent is an essential element of America's DNA. Civil rights protesters transformed the country. Protesters helped turn the country against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. The majority of those digging in against Obama's policies sincerely believe that he is moving the country in the wrong direction.

Still, there is an ugly undercurrent out there. Yes, some on the right tried to delegitimize Bill Clinton as well -- remember the garbage linking him to drug trafficking and murder? -- but this is dark and personal in a much more unsettling way. What other president -- with a Hawaii birth certificate, no less -- would be subjected to conspiratorial doubts about whether he was born in this country?

There was a hopeful moment after Obama's election when the country -- even many of those who had voted against him -- seemed proud of itself for having broken a racial barrier. Maybe we were all being naive. Maybe prejudice is not so easily drained from the swamp.

The subject got a major boost in visibility from Maureen Dowd, who began with the shout-out from the South Carolina congressman who was a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans:

"Fair or not, what I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!"

Ouch.

"I've been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer -- the frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi; a cad who would snuff old people; a snake who would indoctrinate kids -- had much to do with race. . . .


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