In the days after Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst at President Obama during his address to Congress, commentators lamented the breakdown of civil discourse, and a political debate broke out over whether or not to censure the South Carolina congressman. Initially, members of both parties condemned Wilson. But since then, some conservatives, especially those who rallied against health care in Washington this weekend, have called Wilson a hero. Are opinions about Wilson's behavior driven by racism? Columnists say they recognized a disturbing racial subtext behind Wilson's charge and the rage of the teabaggers who defend him.

  • Judging the President as Uppity, Maureen Dowd writes at The New York Times. "What I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!" Dowd says, "it may be President Obama's very air of elegance and erudition that raises hackles in some," and argues that Obama is the "ultimate civil rights figure -- a black man whose legitimacy is constantly challenged by a loco fringe." She thinks some people, especially Southerners, simply cannot accept a black man as president. "For two centuries, the South has feared a takeover by blacks or the feds. In Obama, they have both."
  • To Some, Barack Obama Is The Enemy, Not a Political Opponent, Colbert King writes in The Washington Post. "There's something loose in the land, an ugliness and hatred directed toward Barack Obama, the nation's first African American president, that takes the breath away. The thread of resentment is woven through conservative commentary, right-wing radio and cable TV shows, all the way to Capitol Hill."
  • The GOP Has "Blackened" President Obama, says Joan Walsh at Salon. She says "racially tinged" debates from Henry Louis Gates to  Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination have hurt Obama. "They've blackened Obama, in both senses of the word -- simultaneously diminishing his support and emphasizing his ethnicity. Simply by raising consciousness about the president's race and associating him with radical identity politics, they've diminishing his standing among a large swath of the public."
  • They Want To Put Him In His Place, writes Sherrilyn Ifill at The Root. "The deliberate disrespect some Republicans have shown toward President Obama is an expression of their resistance to the very idea of him as president. They challenge him for having the temerity to think that he can be the face of America. Their actions are designed to put him in what they believe is his place." She says the "incivility is not driven by their disagreement with President Obama's policies."
Not everyone agrees. At Salon, Glenn Greenwald says the right has been dominated by "extremists" and "crazies" for years, and doesn't think that the far right's treatment of Obama marks a departure:
I am extremely unpersuaded by the prevailing media narrative that the Right is suddenly enthralled to its rambunctions and extremist elements and is treating Obama in some sort of unique or unprecedented way. Other than the fact that Obama's race intensifies the hatred in some precincts, nothing that the Right is doing now is new.
At The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates says Greenwald is correct that the right's preoccupation with race is long-lived. But, he says, that doesn't mean that race-inflected reactions to the president should be ignored. "Watermelon jokes are a long way from red-lining, and in seeing how far we've come, the temptation is to dismiss how far we have to go. But from a black perspective, it's a temptation you can ill-afford. Racism cost us dollars a half-century ago. Today it costs us quarters--but it still costs."

Another columnist warns against equating policy gripes with racism. "I am not in any way dismissing those concerned about illegal immigration as racists or reactionaries," E.J. Dionne writes in The Washington Post. "There are legitimate disagreements as to what we should do about it and problems with extending government programs to those who violate the law to get here."