An ugly streak of racism stained the right wing’s summer of hate. It is plain to see in the posters of Barack Obama dressed as an African witch doctor above the slogan Obamacare: Coming Soon to a Clinic Near You, and it is evident in conspiracy theories that question Obama’s place of birth and presidential legitimacy. But did it prompt Congressman Joe Wilson to scream, “You lie!” when Obama said his healthcare plan would not cover illegal immigrants? Is it manifested in the paranoid rants against “death panels” and “Obama-style socialism”?

Of course it is. But how much so, and why, are harder questions to answer–as former President Carter discovered when he ignited a firestorm by saying that “an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man.” Carter’s heart was in the right place, but his formulation suggests that racism can be quantified and that it is largely a matter of individual prejudice–an accusation that can be plausibly denied by anyone not in the KKK. Hence, pundits like David Brooks stressed the populist roots of right-wing rage, and the White House and GOP chair Michael Steele now agree on one thing: opposition to Obama’s reform agenda is based on policy differences, not racism. But racism also expresses itself as policy, from legal segregation to states’ rights, and if racism does not constitute the totality of antigovernment populism, it is not incidental to it.

Who knows what lurks in the heart of Joe Wilson? In the end, what matters is that after the outburst, Senator Max Baucus, at the request of the White House, tightened existing bars on illegal immigrants’ buying health coverage in his proposed insurance exchange and established an immigration-status verification requirement that could make it harder for legal immigrants to get healthcare. That policy result is racist, even if no one involved in crafting it harbors a hatred of Latinos; it is also xenophobic, financially inefficient and a public health nightmare.

Whatever agendas lie behind the right wing’s summer smears, one discernibly consistent goal has been to shrink the power of people of color and the organizations that represent them and to tar the pursuit of racial justice as anti-American, foreign and unconstitutional. It was not so much Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” remark that made her a target of the right; it was her moderate support for considering race as one factor in legal decisions, a principle Chief Justice John Roberts and right-wing legal groups like the Committee for Justice, which led the assault on Sotomayor, have done much to extinguish.

Likewise, although it was Van Jones’s signature on a 9/11 Truth petition that brought him down, it was his work with Color of Change, an organization that “attempts to strengthen Black America’s voice,” that placed him in the cross hairs of Glenn Beck, whose Fox show has lost seventy-one advertisers in the wake of a Color of Change-led boycott. And although the witch hunt against ACORN has recently reached all the way to Congress, which voted to deny the group funding in the wake of a manufactured scandal (see Christopher Hayes, page 4), it was years ago that Karl Rove put ACORN on the GOP’s enemies list. Why? Because ACORN’s registration drives increase turnout of poor, black and brown voters.

Obama has always defined himself as a president who just happens to be black, and whatever the necessity of that definition, it prevents him from leading the pushback on these racist attacks. But there’s no reason we can’t. Pursuing a more just, less racist society is, after all, a defining difference between the American left and the American right, which began the 1950s denouncing the civil rights movement as a communist plot and has failed to embrace racial justice as a cause ever since. It now seems to have hooked its future to targeting the political life of minorities by recycling McCarthyism, from conspiracy theories to guilt-by-association to distorting the statements and records of public servants.

It might be impossible to divine the prejudice nursed by those mounting the recent attacks, but it is possible, and indeed urgent, to unmask and confront their motives and to stand strong for the rights of people of color to exercise and expand their power.