WASHINGTON // For the second time in Barack Obama's short tenure as president, the issue of racism in America has consumed talk shows and dinner table conversations despite the administration's best efforts to avoid the topic. In a week Mr Obama had hoped to spend retaking control of his signature domestic initiative, healthcare reform, the race issue emerged as yet another distraction, and as more proof that America is not yet able to move beyond the racial divisions of the past.
The debate was reignited by Jimmy Carter, a former US president raised in the segregated south, who last week became the most prominent political figure to voice an opinion long held by some Democrats and liberal pundits: that much of the criticism lobbed at Mr Obama is fuelled by prejudice. "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African-American," Mr Carter told NBC's Nightly News.
The "animosity" against Mr Obama has taken a variety of forms: a group of sceptics known as the "birthers", who have asserted, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Mr Obama was born in Kenya and is thus not qualified to be president; the raucous crowds at town hall meetings last month who lashed out at elected officials; a recent gathering of protesters in Washington who carried signs depicting Mr Obama as Adolf Hitler.
In an outburst unprecedented in modern US politics, a Republican congressman from South Carolina, Joe Wilson, interrupted Mr Obama's recent address to Congress by yelling "you lie" and "that's not true". Mr Carter and others have said that Mr Wilson, a former aide to segregationist Strom Thurmond, would have acted differently in the presence of a white president. Some Republicans have discredited the more distasteful attacks, such as those from the birthers or the comparisons to Hitler. But they have also moved quickly to dismiss the notion that sharp criticism of Mr Obama is tied to race. They point out that healthcare reform has always stoked fierce partisanship, even for white presidents. And many of Mr Obama's other policies, they note, strike at the heart of values held dear by many conservatives, raising legitimate political outrage.
"President Carter is flat out wrong," Michael Steele, the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement last week. "This isn't about race. It is about policy." On Fox News, a former house speaker, Newt Gingrich, suggested that Democrats played the race card to achieve political goals, calling it, "destructive for America to suggest that we can't criticise a president without it being a racial act".
Congressman Pete Sessions of Texas shot back at the current house speaker, Nancy Pelosi, after she suggested that the politically charged atmosphere could lead to "violence". Ms Pelosi compared criticism of Mr Obama with the "frightening" anti-gay rhetoric in San Francisco in the 1970s and invoked the 1978 murder of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay member to serve on the San Francisco's board of supervisors.
"The speaker is now likening genuine opposition to assassination," Mr Sessions, who is also chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement. Mr Obama, for his part, has attempted to defuse the tension by staying out of the debate. The president recently declined to answer a reporter's question on the subject, The New York Times reported. His spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said in a recent press briefing that the president "does not believe that that criticism comes based on the colour of his skin".
Mr Gibbs added that, for now, he does not see the need for a "large national conversation" about race. It is familiar - and yet uncomfortable - territory for Mr Obama, the son of a black man from Kenya and white woman from Kansas, whose rise up the political ranks has often placed him at the heart of the country's dialogue on race. As a candidate, Mr Obama faced potent attacks from his rivals over the racially charged comments of his former pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright Jr. Among other things, Mr Wright referred to the US as the "US of KKKA", a reference to the Ku Klux Klan. That controversy led Mr Obama to publicly break ties with Rev Wright and give a speech in Philadelphia that many touted as a major address on race.
In July, Mr Obama inserted himself - many believe by accident - into the first racial controversy of his presidency when he said that police "acted stupidly" by arresting a noted black scholar, Henry Louis Gates Jr. That flap, which dominated the news cycle for more than a week, ended only when Mr Obama, acting as the country's arbiter-in-chief, invited Mr Gates and the police officer, Sgt James Crowley, to the White House for drinks and a conversation that became known as the "beer summit".