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It’s hard to imagine that less than a century ago, police sergeants and sheriffs were overseeing the burning of crosses and ensuring the safety of Ku Klux Klansmen in places like Queens, NY and that fifty years ago, people of color were still fighting for the ability to use public bathrooms and drink from water fountains at will.  And today, in 2009, despite having the first African American President in the White House, Blacks and Latinos still suffer from institutional racism, blatantly discriminatory attacks, profiling and disproportionate levels of incarceration.  Despite the plethora of issues we still must surpass, the President has diligently worked to unite the American body and transcend the conversation beyond race.  Unfortunately, his opponents often see nothing but skin color and an opportunity to conjure up age-old sentiments, fears and stereotypes.

The issue of race in America is so complex that even analyzing and assessing it requires the breakdown of multiple layers.  Former President Jimmy Carter recently expressed his view on the rage being hurled towards Obama in an extremely forthright and candid manner.  Following Congressman Joe Wilson’s outburst during the President’s speech on health care in front of Congress, Carter was compelled to say the following in a television interview:  “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a Black man.”

Now this isn’t an ‘angry Black person’ touting these words, nor an advocate who has fought against discrimination their entire lives, but rather a White, former President who didn’t hesitate to call out what he deemed dangerous behavior.  Carter’s insightful words have sparked yet another debate on Obama’s ethnicity and the state of racial tensions in America.  Can we recall a time when the President’s citizenship was ever called in to question?   When was the last time we heard words like ‘socialist’ and ‘Marxist’ utilized?  Have people ever second-guessed a sitting President so openly?  Can we remember a moment where folks were yelling to have ‘their country back’?  And when was the President of the United States ever interrupted, belittled and disrespected by a member of Congress in the House chambers?! After all, the rules themselves prohibit lawmakers from “unnecessarily and unduly exciting animosity among its members or antagonism from those other branches of the government.”

Let’s take it even one step further: Carter didn’t hesitate to address the rise in anger and troubling sentiment circulating around the country and in Washington itself.  But not too long ago, Governor David Paterson of NY juxtaposed virtually the same concept and was immediately castigated for it.  Criticized for playing the ‘race card’, Paterson was instantaneously dismissed when he too highlighted bias and deep-seated hatred for the way in which both he and the President were being treated.  So how is it that when a White official mentions a controversial topic, it sparks an in-depth debate and analysis of society and the treatment of the President.  But when a Black leader says virtually the same, he is immediately touted as a race-baiter and shunned from the conversation?

As we await Joe Wilson’s next step – whether that includes a formal apology on the House floor remains to be determined – we must not take our own next steps in vain.   The next time anyone is so quick to dismiss race and bias, let them not forget the lessons of the past, and – more importantly – the lessons we’re still constructing today.

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