What Jimmy Carter Doesn’t Know
September 17, 2009
Jonathan J. Bean
When Barack Obama dumped Rev. Jeremiah Wright during the presidential campaign, he explained that the Reverend was a man lost in another time, when hard-core white racism required hypersensitivity to issues of race.
Likewise, former President Jimmy Carter seems lost in the hypersensitive radicalism of the late 1960s. In controversial remarks, the former president recently tagged opponents of President Obama’s policies as racists: “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.”
During the late 1960s, activists on the left started to color-code policy debates, much like their white supremacist predecessors. Older readers will recall: before the health care debate, it was welfare. Welfare reform was “code” for white racism, according to the deep thinkers of the 1970s and 1980s. Never mind that there was strong black support for such reform.
Now it is health care and budget deficits. Oppose the president’s proposal? You’re likely a “racist.” Concerned about massive deficits? Also “racist.”
Here is what Jimmy Carter and others fail to see: On race, America has changed across the board. Witness the election of Barack Obama, the integration of new immigrants into U.S. society (even in the rural South), and the acceptance of racial intermarriage. In 1958, only 4 percent of whites approved of intermarriage; today it barely elicits a yawn.
Immigration and intermarriage promise to change the black-white “race hustle” in ways the Left and Right can’t control.
This is a teachable moment for Jimmy Carter and others who do not know the hidden history of civil rights.
The civil rights movement owes much to individuals—some famous, some forgotten—who placed individual freedom, the Constitution, color-blind justice, and self-help above other interests. The movement started with Frederick Douglass, Lewis Tappan (the financial angel of abolitionism) and other evangelical Christians who struggled against the pernicious pro-slavery Christians of the South. In later years, these champions of liberty stood against Chinese Exclusion (1882), race-based immigration quotas (1924), and Japanese internment. They also stood for anti-lynching laws, merit-based college admissions (rejecting quotas on Jews), welcoming Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and decriminalizing “illegal aliens,” a promise carried through by Ronald Reagan.
If Jimmy Carter reads about this long struggle he will hear much name calling from opponents of “live and let live.” But he won’t hear it from Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, superlawyer Louis Marshall, H.L. Mencken, Zora Neale Hurston, Branch Rickey and the many others who opposed inserting race where it doesn’t belong: sports, politics, college, and so on.
Part of the problem is that historians have blotted out this tradition. Only the “progressive” Left view is presented: that government is sometimes the problem, but always the solution. Those who favor nondiscrimination, what we used to call a “colorblind society,” are now to be considered racists.
In fact, it is government that has done the most harm to people living in our country because of their skin color. Government supported slavery, Jim Crow, Chinese Exclusion, Japanese internment, forced sterilization of “inferior races,” and today’s race preferences in hiring, promotion, awarding of contracts, and other areas. Libertarians such as Ward Connerly, who led the charge against state-sanctioned racial preferences in California, are the true heirs of the long civil rights movement, not Jimmy Carter.
Going deeper than law and politics, Americans can learn from pioneers such as Frederick Douglass that people should be treated as individuals rather than as symbols of group stereotypes. Carter ought to read Douglass’s orations, especially his speech envisioning an America where we are “one country, one citizenship, one liberty, one law, for all people without regard to race.”
Jimmy Carter is a relic of a time and mindset past. It’s time to move on.
Jonathan J. Bean is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the Institute book, Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.