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How Carolinians see the race row

Mark Mardell | 23:41 UK time, Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Columbia, South Carolina: On the face of it, the president is more of a "Piggy Park" sort of guy than a "Mac's on Main Street" man, which is rather odd.

The two restaurants in South Carolina's capital have similar menus of Southern fare - hush puppies and BBQ ribs. But their customers' tastes differ when it comes to President Carter's claim that the anger directed towards President Obama is "based on racism".

Mr Obama's spokesman says the president does not believe the protests against him are anything to do with the colour of his skin - and that opinion would strike a chord with the (mainly white) diners at the Piggy Park.

A Confederate flag flutters outside the restaurant, which boasts that it serves the best BBQ in town. Before you get to the counter there are a couple of tables piled with confederate memorabilia, novels about the End of Days, and right-wing tracts.

But the lunch-time customers go ahead and order their "middle pig dinner" without glancing at the literature.

My colleagues Matt and Justin have repeatedly told me that one of the joys of reporting from the USA is the way people are so eager to speak to reporters, and do so in radio- and TV-friendly soundbites.

It must be me, then, because most people here are pretty camera-shy or monosyllabic.

One large man, bull-necked, shaven-headen, with old fashioned braces (or suspenders, to use the American term) holding up his suit trousers, looks like an oppressive law-man from a liberal movie about the Deep South.

How is that for stereotyping? He might be a life-long, zealous campaigner against discrimination, but I will never know. He shakes his head and moves on.

Those who do talk are nearly all adamant that while they may not like the president, it is not about race - that is in the past.

And they are divided over whether their congressman, Joe Wilson, was right to call him a liar.

Some agree with the sentiment but not the rudeness. One expresses well the frustration of conservatives and makes what I think is a rather good point. He calls President Carter's allegation "arrogant" and asks how the president can peer inside his head, and judge why he feels the way he feels about Mr Obama.

It is one of the frustrations of reporting this story: how do you judge what motivates people?

Over at Macs on Main Street, Barry "Fatback" Walker, a big black man in a voluminous purple satin shirt, shows me the pictures lining his walls of the blues and jazzmen who have performed at his restaurant.

Famous politicians too. Barack Obama has been here, and so has the Vice-President, who adds a special handwritten note underneath his photo in praise of the restaurant's speciality dessert, the peach cobbler.

The menu here is very similar to that at the Piggy Park: Mr Walker says the cuisine is something that unites the races.

One of the photos is of him and his family with Congressman Joe Wilson.

"He's a good friend," says Mr Walker, "and he's not a racist."

But the restaurant-owner is delighted that Jimmy Carter has spoken out, and says this is a turning point.

The former president, he tells me, is merely saying what the people in the barber-shops and the bars are saying: that Mr Obama is getting it in the neck because he is a black man.

Mr Walker's analysis is interesting too. Social equality, he says, has been achieved - a black man with money can walk in anywhere - but Mr Obama is looking to promote economic equality, and that is what some whites cannot stand, and call socialism.

Just outside his restaurant, I chat to some African-American women and mention what we are doing.

"Woah woah for Carter," one says, raising her hands above her head. "He tells it like it is."

She cannot peer into the soul of the protesters, any more than President Carter can.

But many African-Americans may feel as though a subterranean stream has burst above ground, even if the president would rather not get caught in the spray.


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