WASHINGTON — In the pre-dawn hours of last Nov. 5, while much of the nation celebrated Barack Obama's election as the nation's first black president, three white men in Springfield, Mass., doused the partially completed Macedonia Church of God in Christ with gasoline and burned it to the ground.
After their arrest, the men told police they'd torched the black church because they were angry about Obama's election and feared minorities would be given more rights.
At about the same time, newspaper Web sites were filled with millions of hateful messages about Obama, and the computer servers of two large white supremacist groups, the Council of Conservative Citizens and Stormfront.org, crashed because they got so much traffic.
"You immediately got the sense that something significant was happening," said Mark Potok, who investigates hate groups as the director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.
Potok's instincts were correct. Obama's victory had stirred immediate racial anger among a small portion of Americans.
That visceral backlash quickly subsided, but as the grip of the worst recession since the 1930s began to tighten, a different type of anger began to surface. Only this time, the hostility wasn't limited to society's fringe elements. It was everywhere.
The collapse of the housing market, the government bailout of Wall Street, record job losses, long-term unemployment, trillion-dollar deficits, shrinking retirement funds, growing government intervention, foreign economic competition and America's changing demographic landscape left many Americans angry at the direction of the country, confused about the source of their problems and fearful about the future.
In this summer of discontent, much of that outrage, rightly or wrongly, has been trained on President Obama. While it's an occupational hazard that comes with the turf at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., some of the criticism of Obama has the unmistakable stench of racism.
For example, a recent poster making the rounds shows Obama outfitted in full African witch doctor gear, complete with headdress, above the words "OBAMACARE coming to a clinic near you."
"I certainly detect a racial element in some of the hostility directed at President Obama," said Richard Alba, the distinguished professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "I'm certain there are white Americans for whom having a dark-skinned president in the White House is an enormous shock. This is really a complete overturning of what they thought was the natural order of things. The natural way that American society worked. It upsets all their ideas about how American society is structured."
Potok agreed. "Anyone who's looked at some of the signs at the various 'tea parties' knows perfectly well that race is a significant part of this backlash," he said. " . . . I'm not suggesting that every person angry about health care or immigration is a Klansman in disguise, but at the back of this white-hot rage that we've been seeing are people who are genuinely furious about the way the country is changing and changing racially."
No one symbolizes the changing face of America more than Obama does. "I think hundreds of thousands of whites are taking these very real changes and attributing them to the race of the president," Potok said.
Pollster Cliff Young of Ipsos said his research suggested that the national anger, which, at least publicly, has been overwhelmingly centered among whites, was about more than just race. He said a "generalized fear of the unknown" was creating the tension.
Alba agreed, and said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton probably would face similar hostility as president because she was a woman, which would be another culture shock for many people.
"There's this tectonic shift going on in the United States, both economically and demographically," Young said, noting that in 2042 non-Hispanic whites are projected to become a racial minority. "And certain segments of the population are feeling left out. Is what we're seeing directly a function of Obama's race? I think not, actually. He's just an indicator of something 'different.' Of an America that's not the same as what's idealized by certain segments of the population."
Because racism is so personal and subjective, it's difficult to quantify and doesn't show up neatly in surveys and polling data. Much like pornography, racism is difficult to define, but most people think they know it when they see it or hear it. The problem is that everyone sees it differently based on experiences, biases and personal beliefs.
Former President Jimmy Carter, however, reopened Pandora's box this week by asserting that racism was a major factor behind the hostility that Obama has faced. Carter gave a respected, white and Southern voice to concerns that many had dismissed as the baseless whining of overprotective blacks.
In doing so, the former Georgia peanut farmer helped set off another round in America's 390-year-old debate about politics and race that many would prefer to avoid.
In his new book, "In the President's Secret Service," author Ron Kessler writes that racists and white supremacists probably account for more than a third of the estimated 30 death threats that Obama allegedly receives every day, about four times as many as were directed at former President George W. Bush. The Secret Service wouldn't confirm Kessler's claim.
Unlike Potok, however, Kessler said the citizen outrage expressed at town hall meetings and tax protest events known as "tea parties" didn't reflect racist sentiment. He disagrees with Carter's assessment.
"I think it's reprehensible for (Carter) to attribute racial motives to people who simply disagree with Barack Obama's policies," Kessler said. "Quite a few of the threats are racially motivated, which doesn't necessarily mean 'right wing.' It means they're racists. It means they're white supremacists. They're jackasses, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're politically tuned in to any particular philosophy. I don't know how they vote, but they're not necessarily involved in any political movement."
One of the first reactions to Carter's statement came from Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who accused Carter of playing the "race card."
Many, however, think that the Republican Party and its supporters, particularly media personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, have used race most frequently and in the most inflammatory manner to frame their opposition to and displeasure with the president.
"I don't think anybody has used the symbols of race and racism to criticize this president more than the individuals on the right," said D'Linell Finley, a political science professor at Auburn University at Montgomery. "Listen to the radio, look at the signs and listen to their individual words. It comes through both in a subtle and not-so-subtle manner."
The not-so-subtle incidents are numerous:
- Last October, John McCain's campaign ousted a Buchanan County, Va., McCain campaign official, Bobby May, for writing a newspaper column that said that if Obama were elected he'd hire rapper Ludacris to paint the White House black and change the national anthem to the "Negro National Anthem" by James Weldon Johnson.
- Diane Fedele, who was then the president of a Republican women's club in San Bernardino County, Calif., resigned last October after she sent out a newsletter with a drawing of Obama on a bogus food-stamp coupon surrounded by ribs, watermelon and fried chicken.
- In May, Sherri Goforth, an aide to Republican state Sen. Diane Black of Tennessee, sent an e-mail to Republican staffers showing the first 43 U.S. presidents in stately poses, but Obama's image, as the 44th president, was a pair of bright white cartoonish eyes on a black background.
- In June, Diann Jones, the vice chairman of the Collin County Republican Party in Texas sent an e-mail to local Republican clubs calling a proposal for a $50 gun tax "another terrific idea from the black house and its minions."
- Also in June, South Carolina Republican activist Rusty DePass compared an escaped gorilla from a Columbia zoo to first lady Michelle Obama's ancestors.
- At an August political forum, Republican U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Kansas denied any racial intent when she said that the party was looking for a "great white hope" to lead the party into the future.
David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political Studies, a public-policy research institute, said: "You have a whole bunch of incidents of that sort, and they're accelerating in their occurrences."
To many, South Carolina Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie" outburst was only the latest racially tinged episode involving the party. Bositis said that much of the antagonism came from the Southern wing of the party, in part because Obama was the first Northern Democratic president since Kennedy and because the Republican Party's Southern clout had been marginalized.
"It has been a long time since they've had such a limited influence in the U.S. Congress," Bositis said. "A number of these people have gone out of their way to diss Obama, and that's a Southern thing, it's not a black thing. But what is it about Obama that they most want to diss? A lot of it has to do with his race."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY