Former President Jimmy Carter's assertion that "there's an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president," is a calumny of the first order. Americans are the least racist people in the world -- that's not my judgment; it's born out by every cross-national assessment of racial attitudes taken in the last several decades. Does that mean there are no racists in America? Of course not -- about one in 10 Americans holds some prejudicial views about people of other races, a figure that has remained relatively constant over the last few decades. But, bigotry comes in all colors. In a 2007 Pew Research Center poll, one of the few studies that measured interracial attitudes among minorities as well as whites, about 8 percent of whites harbored animus towards blacks, while 10 percent of blacks held similarly negative views of whites.
Calling somebody a racist has become the new McCarthyism -- not much different than calling someone a communist, without any evidence, during the Cold War. It's a dangerous game -- and one that should discredit those who hurl the epithet every bit as much as it harms the one at whom it's aimed. Just as McCarthyism undermined the legitimate fight against actual communists, calling everyone who doesn't agree with an African-American president a racist will make it harder to fight real racism if it occurs.
I'm still not willing to let Rep. Wilson totally off the hook, however. He behaved badly and there is no excuse for it. He owed an apology not just to the president -- to whom he did apologize almost immediately -- but to his colleagues as well. I learned long ago that the best way to get beyond a mistake -- and name-calling during a presidential speech certainly qualifies -- is to say you're sorry, without excuses, exceptions or justifications. He should have put the matter to rest with a one-minute speech on the floor of the House the morning after the outburst. Maybe he wouldn't have become a folk hero to those on the right who favor guerilla theater, but if he had apologized to his colleagues for his discourteous behavior, maybe we could have spent the week talking President Obama's misrepresentations instead of Joe Wilson's name-calling.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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