Playing the Race Card and the Sin of Slander

Deal W. Hudson
September 17, 2009

On Tuesday, former president Jimmy Carter told NBC Nightly News, “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, that he’s African-American.”

I have some questions for Carter: On what grounds do you label thousands of people as racists? Where is your evidence? Did you consider the Eighth Commandment – thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor – when you made that accusation?

The same questions should be asked of the growing chorus of Obama supporters who are playing the race card. Calling someone a racist is a serious matter, and anyone making the accusation should have substantial evidence to back it up. Otherwise, they are merely slandering an opponent for political purposes and should be ashamed of themselves.

One Catholic commentator making this accusation is Michael Sean Winters, who wrote at the America magazine blog about the demonstration in Washington, D.C., last Saturday:

But, watching and listening, it is difficult not to conclude that the strong sense of grievance, the idea that “Nobody’s standing up for us!” as one man from Tennessee put it, was not only to restore certain constitutional principles, but the social hierarchy that prevailed in earlier times, a hierarchy that kept blacks on the lowest rungs of society.

Just how is it “difficult not to conclude” these people are racists, simply because they don’t feel represented by either the Obama White House or the Democratic majority in Congress? Applying Occam’s razor, the most obvious explanation is this: These are conservative Americans who are disgusted with an administration spending their tax dollars to assume control of one industry after another, with the nation’s medical care hanging in the balance.

Were there some racists among the masses of people on the National Mall last Saturday? Almost certainly. But to claim racial discontent was integral to the overall complaint about a lack of political representation is pure speculation, damaging to the reputation of the accuser and the accused.

Winters revisited the question of racism today, acknowledging, “Obviously, not all opposition to Obama is racist.” This means, of course, some of it is, but that was not the accusation he originally made. He adds, “Most of those who oppose the President are not racists,” which leads me to ask, “What does Winters mean by most?” If 49 percent of the population oppose Obama – and that’s a lot of people – are they racists?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Slander is an offense against the truth” (2475). The Catechism also reminds Catholics that we should respect the “reputation of persons” and avoid “every attitude or word likely to cause them unjust injury” (2477).

These charges of racism against critics of the Obama administration by the Democrats in Congress and others are slanderous. Why? Because Jimmy Carter and Michael Sean Winters have no knowledge of the people they have labeled, beyond what they have seen on television.

Need I repeat that such a serious charge as racism should be based upon presentable evidence, or what the Catechism calls an “objectively valid reason”? In fact, the Catechism goes even further and counsels Catholics that, “to avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way” (2478).

Winters, however, was relatively polite compared to the ranting of the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, who interviewed Democrat Don Fowler, who teaches politics at the University of South Carolina:

It may be President Obama’s very air of elegance and erudition that raises hackles in some. My father used to say to me, “Boy, don’t get above your raising.” Some people are prejudiced anyway, and then they look at his education and mannerisms and get more angry at him.

What we have here is a former Democratic Party political operative turned academic applying an Old South racist attitude to the minds of millions of Americans who simply don’t like the direction the country is going under Barack Obama. When Dowd quotes Fowler with approval, she becomes a party to the kind of moral generalization about a group of people that used to be considered ill-advised and ignorant.

President Obama, to his credit, has tried to tone down this name-calling, at least in the case of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC). This is a smart move, because slanderous accusations of racism aren’t going to silence the criticism, and they certainly aren’t going to raise the level of debate over important issues like health care and Iran’s growing nuclear threat.

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