Racism or just plain politics? It depends on who's listening

Does our first black president lie? Is his accuser a racist?

Or neither? Or both?

Americans have been working their way through that explosive equation.

Among those listening most carefully are African-Americans.

Some heard echoes of the Jim Crow South when a white congressman from South Carolina shouted "You lie!" while Barack Obama delivered a health care speech.

Others heard nothing of the sort. The sounds we all hear depend on our politics, our histories, our lives.

To Tara Moreland, a biracial college freshman, the rancor and fiery protests against nearly all the president has proposed in his first eight months have more to do with Obama being a Democrat -- maybe.

But to Gwen Grant, who vividly recalls the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the racism seems obvious.

"There’s something unsettling in the climate," said Grant, of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. "People seem to be more freely spewing -- you know -- racial epithets."

All the shouting at town hall meetings, all the cries on talk radio to “take back our country”: Do they amount to an impassioned plea that Washington stop busting the budget, stop bailing out fat cats and not force everyone to buy health insurance?

Or is it about race?

Talk radio's Glenn Beck: Obama has a "deep-seated hatred for white people."

Former president Jimmy Carter: "A racist attitude" burns at the core of the most hostile opposition to Obama's proposals.

"Flat-out wrong," replied Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who is black. "This isn't about race. It's about policy."

That isn’t what so many Americans of color hear, or feel, when the protests get so heated over health care, immigration or even the constitutional legitimacy of Obama’s presidency — at least on the “birther” blogs and some radio shows.

“You have to play the ball where the monkey throws it,” said U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, a white Missouri Republican, in a recent speech to the Christian conservative Family Research Council.

He was citing a parable about how British soldiers in India dealt with monkeys running onto a golf course, his metaphor for “the rule in Washington” as it applied to accepting new proposals.

When liberal commentators accused Blunt of equating “the monkey” with Obama, Blunt denied any such link. He said he has told the story for years.

It’s “disgusting race-baiting,” Blunt said.

What do African-Americans think when they hear such talk?

Mayor Carson Ross of Blue Springs, a black moderate Republican: “Being the first African-American president, there’s a certain novelty to that. People are still trying to get their arms around it. He still remains one of the more popular presidents we’ve had.”

Ross did not interpret the “You lie!” outburst by Republican Joe Wilson as racially tinged, however “inappropriate” it struck him and much of the country. But Ross also says he doesn’t think that Obama’s ideas will improve health care delivery.

Camille Charles, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist of mixed race, hears it differently.

“Think of Bill Clinton,” she said. “Bill Clinton did lie. But nobody ever broke protocol from a national television address to Congress to yell like that.”

Obama publicly gives little credence to any connection between his race and the temperature of the debates.

“I actually was black before the election,” he quipped last week on a late-night talk show.

He is trying to walk an extraordinarily thin line, observers say.

“He accepts a great deal of personal responsibility to do nothing that would inflame or antagonize racial tensions,” said Washington political strategist Roy Temple.

Poll after poll has shown that, broadly speaking, minority populations are far less sanguine about the state of race relations than is the white population.

“Certainly, if you ask how much racial discrimination still exists, there’s a very, very wide gap,” said Paul Taylor, vice president of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

“Blacks say ‘a lot,’ and whites say ‘not so much.’ ”

The clanging sounds of this argument won’t fade soon. We’ve been hurling words at one another for more than 300 years and won’t stop now.

But we can pause occasionally to hear individual voices.