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Analysis: Wrestling with how to talk about race

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[September 26, 2009]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- For a while, it almost seemed as if President Barack Obama had soothed the angst over race in this country simply by taking office. The focus was on big issues facing a new president - one who just happened to be black.

If only it were so simple. This summer, Obama stepped into the dustup between a black college professor and a white police officer, and the race debate erupted anew. Then vitriolic attacks on Obama over his health care proposals spawned rippling allegations that his critics were motivated by racism.

And now passions over skin color are flaring red-hot again.

Obama's election nearly a year ago - a monumental stride toward bridging the racial divide - turned the politics of race on its head.

But it didn't end the matter by any means.

It turns out that Obama was right when he said in his much-watched race speech in March 2008 that there are "complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through - a part of our union that we have yet to perfect."

Americans still are figuring out how to hold that conversation as the country navigates uncharted territory under its first nonwhite president.

One conundrum is how to hold Obama accountable for his words and actions - or even talk about his policies - without risk of being called racist.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain both wrestled with that question during the presidential campaign. Both found it tricky to maneuver. Both were frustrated by it. Each handled it differently.

In the Democratic primary, Clinton acted so cautiously that some insiders questioned whether she was afraid to throw a punch.

Come the general election, McCain early on accused Obama of playing the race card, hoping to send a message that he would not brook being called a racist.

Obama had triggered the reaction with a warning that Republicans would try to scare voters by saying he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."

A year later and now as president, Obama is the one working to tamp down race in the political dialogue.

"Are there people out there who don't like me because of race? I'm sure there are," Obama says matter-of-factly. But he rejects the notion that racism is even partly behind his critics' attacks, as a growing chorus of Democrats have claimed.

Trying to turn down the heat, Obama adds: "We can have a strong disagreement, passionate disagreements about issues without resorting to name-calling."

But the "racist" label is as old as the country itself. And, in a nation founded by slaveholders, people aren't about to stop using it just because a black president is pleading for civility.

Certainly, Obama's election healed some racial wounds. But change takes time, and understanding the ramifications of change takes even longer.

"What we're dealing with is the foundational racial problems that we have had and still have. We're making progress, but we haven't come as far as people would like to believe we have," says Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., the senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., and an outspoken conservative who is black. He says society is going through "a learning curve" on how to criticize Obama - and how to criticize the president's critics.

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It's an issue that goes to the very heart of democracy. Free speech, including holding leaders accountable, is at this country's core.

Could the risk of being called a racist end up muzzling healthy debate if people don't dare voice their concerns?

Perhaps for some. But on the whole, criticism hasn't stopped.

Animosity toward the president and his policies has boiled over in recent weeks, most notably with South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" retort to the president.

Democrats from Jimmy Carter on down have blamed the increasingly harsh criticism of Obama on racism.

House Republican leader John Boehner countered that "the outrage that we see in America has nothing to do with race."

Reality likely falls somewhere in the middle.

"I hear it as anger, but anger masking fear," says Robin Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley whose books include "The Language War." She says people are afraid of just about everything these days - the economy, the government, private business included. And she says: "There's this racial element. It isn't exactly racism but otherness."

Obama, for his part, has tried to shift the subject from the powder keg of race. It's been a distraction from his agenda, from his efforts to overhaul the health care system.


"It's important to realize that I was actually black before the election," the president said this week.

It was a gentle joke from the leader of a country still wrestling with the new dynamics that came when the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas took charge of the White House.


EDITOR'S NOTE - Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.

[Associated Press; By LIZ SIDOTI]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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