Last spring I was driving west on Calhoun Street with my Obama stickers from last year still proudly displayed on my rear bumper. An old Chevrolet pickup truck roared by me and up the James Island Connector ramp. As it passed, some yahoo shouted from the passenger seat, “Obama sucks!”

Was that political commentary or racist diatribe?

A lot of people have been asking themselves that question lately in the wake of months of rowdy town hall meetings where people have carried posters depicting the president as Hitler; at one Obama appearance, one man brought a gun. And, of course, there was Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) with his shout of “You lie!” at President Obama during a speech to a joint session of Congress.

All in all, it’s been an ugly summer in America. But what made it ugly? Partisan politics or sublimated racism?

The summer is finally over. Congress has reconvened. The pundits have found other things to yammer about. Right now a lot of people are breathing a deep sigh of relief. Well, you can suck that sigh back in. I’m here to stir the pot, fan the flames, kick the hornet nest — choose your metaphor.

I want to talk about racism in America. It’s a national conversation we have needed for a long time. I agree with Bill Maher, who said recently, “Finally, we’re talking about this.”

Damn straight. Let’s keep talking.

Racism is the elephant in America’s living room. We can refuse to talk about it, or we may speak loftily of living in a post-elephant home. But the beast still stinks and poops on the floor and knocks over the furniture. And sometimes it gets angry and smashes the whole house. We ignore it at our own peril.

Following Wilson’s outburst, there was much commentary and condemnation. It all broke down along predictable party and ideological lines, starting with former President Jimmy Carter, who told CNN, “I think it’s based on racism. There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president … Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on healthcare. It’s deeper than that.”

New York Times syndicated columnist Maureen Dowd wrote: “Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of president … convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.”

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas denied any taint of racism with a typically asinine offering: “Obama supporters will have difficulty explaining how a mostly white country could elect a black man president last November and 10 months later become a racist majority.”

Actually, Cal, nobody said there was a racist majority in this country. Among the 46 percent of voters who cast their ballots for John McCain in November, I am sure there were many — perhaps a majority — whose reasons were purely political. But common sense dictates that there were many others with darker motives. Anyone who saw the videos of Sarah Palin’s rallies last fall could not mistake the inarticulate rage of some of those people for a policy discussion. And healthcare wasn’t even under discussion back then.

My friend and colleague Jack Hunter wrote that “for many liberals, the proof [of racism] is circumstantial.” Perhaps it is, Jack, but many a malefactor has been convicted on circumstantial evidence. And there are generations of it to choose from.

Bigots have a long history of sublimating their poison with lofty, high-sounding motives. When Gov. Strom Thurmond addressed the Dixiecrat convention and accepted its presidential nomination in 1948, he told the hall full of howling racists, “I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

Of course, when he stepped out of the hall and into the bright lights of the media and the larger world, he spoke in terms of “states’ rights” and constitutional principles. How many of the bigots of 2009 are hiding behind the rhetoric of healthcare?

Whether or not the most extreme anti-Obama behavior is motivated by racism or by a deep and genuine fear of a public option healthcare plan, the important thing is that we talk about it. Racism is alive in America — maybe it’s not doing as well as it was a few decades ago, but it’s always looking for a comeback and another opening in our civic armor. Failure to acknowledge this is not just dishonest — it is dangerous.

Let’s keep talking about racism.

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