One would hope that Jimmy Carter, as he has been frequently in the past, is dead wrong in his allegation that Rep. Joe Wilson’s unfortunate accusation that President Barack Obama was lying to Congress is rooted in racism. His playing of the race card not only seems ill advised, it has been disavowed by a White House dedicated to avoiding such polarization.

If the South Carolina Republican congressman had any other motivation than just disagreement with a presidential policy, it would help return the national political discourse to a hateful level not seen for decades.

What an unimaginable shame that would be. More importantly it would once again set back the cause of equality so unbelievably bolstered by the election of the first African American president, an event that also burnished the nation’s image throughout the world.

For that reason, Carter, whose words still carry the weight of a former president, should be extremely careful in remarks that might heighten the incivility and partisanship that have become such a debilitating factor in dealing with our national agenda. It seems almost impossible these days to disagree without rancor. As a Southerner, Carter knows how easy it is to enflame discredited old passions on both sides. He seems always searching for ways to jump into the limelight, often at the expense of his Oval Office successors.

Are there those whose opposition to Obama’s policies actually masks a deeper, more sinister motive like racism? Of course there are and this president seems to understand that as well as anyone. But he has taken an oath to represent all Americans, no matter their skin color, and has demonstrated his commitment to that responsibility. We can only fervently pray that the number of those who don’t believe he is qualified because of his ancestry is as tiny as their brains. The other day while filling my gas tank, a perfect stranger at a pump across the way inexplicably began ranting about that (expletive) in the White House and then turned his language on me obviously because I had chosen to ignore him.

At the same time black Americans, particularly those in Congress, have their own responsibility to equality that allows honest dissent without assertions of racism. In other words, just because one disagrees with the current White House, it doesn’t mean that disagreement is based on race, even when an opponent like Wilson experiences, as a fellow South Carolinian said, a short circuit from his brain to his mouth. And we must say here that problem isn’t limited to one race if Serena Williams’ behavior on the tennis court and Kayne West’s bizarre performance at a music awards ceremony are any indication.

The pressure members of the Congressional Black Caucus brought on the Democratic leadership to adopt a mild resolution slapping Wilson on the wrist for his outburst has done little but turn him into a hero to those opposing the president. Obama himself urged against the resolution. African American lawmakers saw a summer of attacks on Obama over health care as racially charged. That may be historically understandable but it served only to anger those in the GOP opposition who also disagreed with Wilson’s performance and had encouraged him earlier to apologize to the president.

As for Wilson, he should have gone to the well of the House to explain his actions and clear the air before this occurred . The former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party was quoted as saying that he did not believe Wilson was racially motivated, that he has no record of that. And Wilson’s son, who served in Iraq, said his father was completely devoid of racial intentions. But it would have to be up to Wilson himself to emphatically deny any link to darker motives, which he apparently believes he has done.

Perhaps right now it would be timely for the four living past presidents to issue a statement calling for a cooling of rhetoric and a renewal of civility from both parties — not just a declaration from one of them that virulent racism is still afoot.

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)

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