People are asking, but President Obama's White House team denies that racism has anything to do with recent Tea Party rallies and other protests against his health care policies. That's smart. The same approach worked in last year's presidential campaign. In public, team Obama constantly said that race didn't matter, while in private they never forgot that it mattered a lot.
Race still matters, although it's not always easy to say how much. Why do some people think, for example, that the"9/12 Project" Tea Party protests on the Washington Mall were racially tinged? Maybe it was the sign that television networks photographed that said, as I remember the quote, "The zoo has an African lion; The US has a lyin'African"?
Other signs promoted the idea that Obama is not really a naturally born citizen or that maybe he should just die.
But, in fairness, most of the signs weren't like that. I'm sure most of the folks who showed up in the Mall didn't have race first and foremost on their minds. Yet their efforts to appear racism-free seemed downright poignant at times.
For example, somebody made the effort to produce some pre-printed signs that offered helpfully: "Not a race issue, not a party issue, just an old American freedom issue." Dear sign carriers: I'm sure you mean well, but every time a black American of my generation hears someone say, "It's not a race issue," I immediately think, yup, it's a race issue.
The great success of the civil rights revolution was to illegalize discrimination under the law and make any sign of racism a taboo in decent society. Yet as serious racism recedes, suspicions of racism rush in to fill the gap. People are afraid to talk about race for fear of offending someone or of being accused of "playing the race card."
Yet one of the byproducts of having a black president, it seems, is the unexpected lesson some of the white people I know are receiving in how it feels like to be black. Specifically, they are learning how it feels to hear that something is not a race issue when you plainly and clearly think that it is.
For example, my column-writing colleague Maureen Dowd arched many eyebrows with this bit of mind-reading after Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, rudely blurted out, "You lie!" during Obama's health care address to Congress: "Wilson clearly did not like being lectured and even rebuked by the brainy black president presiding over the majestic chamber. ... Wilson's shocking disrespect for the office of the president - no Democrat ever shouted 'liar' at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq - convinced me: Some people just can't believe a black man is president and will never accept it."
My response: Welcome to my world. Judging by the polls, about 15 percent or so of the country was in shock and even ran to their gun shops to stock up, according to news reports, when they heard Obama won. Some of them naturally show up at protests like the 9/12 march or buy "I'm with Joe Wilson" T-shirts.
Yet on a more cheerful note, a scene you probably did not see on TV happened after the protests as the mostly white protesters wandered home through the nearby Black Family Reunion, an annual two-day street fair on the Mall. Although it sounds like a set-up for a zany Hollywood movie, everyone was civil and courteous. Some of the protesters mingled and bought some lunch. That's the Washington way: Never let political differences get in the way of a good meal.
In judging Obama's performance it would be wrong to make too much of the role played by race, although it would be foolish to make too little of it. Team Obama came into office with a lot of defensive boasting about the big jobs they had to do with two wars, economic catastrophe and a broken health care system. How do you separate the racial backlash against him as the first black president from the political backlash against his being the first to take on so many problems on Day One?
Still, I am amused by the conservatives like Rush Limbaugh who insist that racism has absolutely nothing to do with Obama's problems. Only a few months ago they were blaming white guilt for his success. Folks, you can't have it both ways.
E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.