For better or worse, former Pres. Jimmy Carter has ripped the scab off the old, dark wound of racism now appearing in many of the protests in this country.

While it would be unfair to say racism is in the minds of most of those in the raucous, definitely not spontaneous demonstrations, it would be equally as unfair to say it isn’t there.

Signs such as “An African lion living in the zoo and a lying African living in the White House” are not the creation of minds celebrating diversity. Signs depicting Pres. Obama as a witch doctor with bones protruding from his nose make the racism charge quite plausible.

Add “Lying Muslim Immigrant” and you throw in religious intolerance. Then there’s the “We left our guns at home: this time” and you’ve got the gun nut posse comitatus fringe. Look at the hundreds of signs printed up by a Catholic anti-abortion organization and handed out by the backers of the street theatre that said “Bury Obamacare with Ted Kennedy” and you have the shameless as well.

The opportunistic creators of this “citizen demonstration” business … and for some it IS a business … may not be playing on race or the other issues. But neither are they distancing themselves from the many instances on display. Nor are they condemning them and weeding those small minds out of their productions.

Commentators and editorial writers have been tippy-toeing around the race word for several weeks but no one has used for what it is. Until Carter. He’s put the issue in play. Now we’ll see what they do with it.

He’s right, of course. It’s there. It’s a consistent undercurrent. He’s shined a light on those still clinging to the most divisive issue in our nation’s history.

There are many on the public stage who could have made the racism charge but most don’t have the prestige and the life experiences of the former president. He grew up in a heavily segregated state with division of the races a “natural” condition in his early years. He didn’t have to study it; he was immersed in it. The signs all around him … blatant or shaded … were his to know and his to overcome.

Those who are denying racism hasn’t been a prominent part of our latest example of bought-and-paid-for “freedom of expression” either wouldn’t know an elephant in their bath room or don’t want to acknowledge what is there. Or they welcome it!

Reminds me of the old saw: “Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?”

I’m a strong supporter of free speech. That has not only been a way of life in my many years as a journalist but also a deeply held personal conviction. I’ve availed myself of the constitutional guarantee thousands of times. I live it.

But hate speech isn’t acceptable free speech if it’s used to denigrate or inflame. Nor is calling the president a liar when participating in a formal congressional affair when hundreds of years of history and decorum dictate otherwise. For most of us, free speech is accompanied by the responsibility to know when … and where … to exercise that freedom.

Courts have ruled gun ownership is a right, too. But firing off a few shots at church wouldn’t be considered a responsible use of the guarantee. When and where.

I have some sympathy for those who honestly take to the streets to show their anger and frustration. I’m mad and frustrated, too. And largely for the same reasons. My family has been hurt by the economic catastrophe. Our home has lost a sizeable percentage of its value while our taxes have increased. I’m paying too much and too many taxes. Health care is far too large a portion of our living expenses and is causing lifestyle sacrifices. Employment to use skills developed over a lifetime is non-existent. Damned right I’m mad!

But is any of that tied to racism? Is any of that an excuse to take to the streets with racist and tasteless signs while making threats to come back armed or trying to secede from this country?

Jimmy Carter may have done us a favor by making his charge of race-tinged protests on national TV. Maybe he has taken a first step to lancing this disgusting boil on the body politic. It’s been with us far too long.

Maybe we can’t rid ourselves of this scourge. But we can call it what it is. And we can ignore those who carry the disgusting message.

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