Former President Jimmy Carter raised a lot of hackles this week when he suggested that much of the intense opposition to Pres. Obama and his health care plan is racist in nature. He noted that as a Southerner, he can sense the “belief among a large number of white people and not just from the South that a black man is not qualified to lead this country.” I applaud Pres. Carter’s outspoken assessment. As expected, the mention of the R-word sent people off on all sorts of tangents, and even prompted Pres. Obama himself to disagree with his predecessor. Regardless of what he thought personally, that was a smart political move by Obama to rise above the name-calling.

However, Carter’s assessment should not be lightly dismissed. First of all, he has lived in the South during an openly racist time in its history, and has been around the world seeking to mediate conflicts of all sorts. A man of his stature and experience does not make such statements lightly. I felt much of the same sentiment when I left a town hall meeting a couple of weeks ago; among some in the crowd there were attitudes of elitism, classism and racism that was palpable. Furthermore, some of my African-American friends have quietly acknowledged to me the same feeling, as have some of my white friends. However, until Carter spoke up, many of us didn’t have the courage to say it, given the polarizing nature of the health care debate, the political climate of the country, and the general discomfort many feel when the topic of racism comes up.

I do not know what former Pres. Carter may have meant by the comment, but I can speak to my own thoughts. As offensive as some of the signs at last Sunday’s “Tea Party” march (comparing Obama to Hitler being THE most offensive), I have attended enough events where similarly deriding signs regarding George Bush were present to know that signs in themselves are not the issue. The mistake many make is that we equate racism simply with making openly racist statements or gesture. Most culturally sensitive people today know that such statements will only get them in trouble, so those racist statements may be thought but not spoken.

No, the racism I sense is at a deeper, subliminal level and has more to do with white people’s sense of identity than the actual words we say. Several years ago I attended the Damascus Road Anti-Racism Training sponsored by the Mennonite Church, at which I was introduced to racism represented by the image of an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is the overt racist acts and statements most people associate with racism. However as the saying goes, such acts are only “the tip of the iceberg,” the symptoms of a much deeper condition. In the middle layer of the iceberg is the power structure that inherently favors whites in many aspects of society’s institutional life. One only has to look at the well-publicized inequities in criminal justice cases, public education, housing, health care and the like to show how society’s structures privilege whites at the expense of people of color. (This is an assertion that I know many whites might dispute, but I am not addressing that issue here). However, at the base of the pyramid is racial identity, which gets to how we whites were shaped by family and culture to think of ourselves in comparison to other racial groups. It is at this most basic level, that I sense many white people are reacting unconsciously and irrationally to President Obama. His very presence as the most powerful leader in the country and perhaps the world does not fit with our identity as white people.

In thinking of this most basic level of racial identity I refer to myself as a “recovering racist.” I was born into a racist culture, and racist perspectives shaped me before I was cognitively able to examine my beliefs and values for myself. Like a crack baby born addicted because of his mother’s addiction, so too I was born into a racist culture that said whites were more important, smarter, more worthy, worked harder than others, and therefore deserved their privileged place in society. As much as I might deride such thinking on one level, on another level it is hard to walk away from the comfort I have believing I am better than others. Like an addict seeking to break free of his addiction, I must every day confront the vestiges of racism bred into my cultural DNA.

Now let me be quick to add that I grew up in a home where racist attitudes and statements were never tolerated. In fact we children were often told not to think of ourselves better than others, and I can remember more than once when my mother chided me for such attitudes. We had African-American students living in our home thru a program called A Better Chance. Yet I grew up in a culture where African-Americans were generally portrayed either as Little Black Sambo, Aunt Jemima, or Amos-n-Andy on the one hand, or an angry rioter, a shiftless bum or an illiterate thug on the other. I grew up in a culture where we made decisions by saying “Eenie, meenie, miney, moe, catch a N____ by the toe…,” where community variety shows had white men in black face, and where little black porter statues were place on people’s front lawns. Furthermore, until the Cosby show, I never saw a media image where African Americans or any other person of color were anything remotely like the white people we saw on TV. Whether they were black, Hispanic, Japanese, or Chinese, we had derogatory names for them that we used freely and without thinking.

These subtle and not-so subtle images portrayed a clear message: “We (whites) are not like them (blacks).” As the racial and ethnic consistency of our society has increasingly diversified, the threat to white people’s place as the dominant group has intensified. Projections are that by 2040 or so, white people will make up less than 50% of the population. For a nation that 200 years ago basically saw itself as a country of European transplants, this is a major identity shift. We whites got accustomed to being in control, to being the standard by which all things are judged, and to being in the driver’s seat of society’s rules. Obama as president is a visible reminder that the racial and ethnic power balance has shifted, and that being white does not make one feel as secure as it once did.

Obama’s prominent and capable performance as president has stirred understandable differences of opinion which are not racist in themselves, but which sometimes are fueled by a deep-seated white fear and insecurity. What I felt at the town hall meeting may be similar to what former Pres. Carter was alluding to when he said the opposition is fueled by the fact that the president is an African American. That doesn’t mean that all opposition to Obama is inherently racist. However it also doesn’t mean that just because people refrain from making openly racist statements or gestures that they are not racist. Racism is so deeply embedded in our psyches that it is not so easily expunged.

Many folks felt that with Obama’s election we had crossed some multi-racial threshold in this country. Somehow by electing a black man to be President, we could now rest easy, pat ourselves on the back, and say “we really ARE an inclusive country.” However, instead I think what we have seen is that as Barack Obama has assumed his role with directness and decorum, something deep within the white soul begins to tremble at the change that is coming and life as we whites have known it will not return no matter how hard some may try.