(CNN) -- Former President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday that racial politics played a role in South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's speech to Congress last week and in some of the opposition the president has faced since taking office.
"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," Carter told "NBC Nightly News." "I live in the South, and I've seen the South come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country that shares the South's attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African-Americans."
"That racism inclination still exists, and I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of belief among many white people -- not just in the South but around the country -- that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It's an abominable circumstance, and it grieves me and concerns me very deeply," Carter said.
Michael Steele, who is the first African-American to chair the Republican National Committee, denied Wednesday that race is fueling protests.
"President Carter is flat-out wrong," Steele said in a statement. "This isn't about race. It is about policy."
Carter made similar remarks at an event at his presidential center in Atlanta, Georgia, The Associated Press reported Tuesday, pointing to some protesters who have compared Obama to a Nazi. "Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on health care," the former president said at the Carter Center, according to AP. "It's deeper than that." VideoWatch Carter link animosity toward Obama to racism »
He grouped Wilson's shout of "You lie!" during Obama's speech in that category, according to AP. "I think it's based on racism. There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president," he said.
"The president is not only the head of government, he is the head of state. And no matter who he is or how much we disagree with his policies, the president should be treated with respect."
The House voted Tuesday to formally disapprove of Wilson's behavior during the joint session of Congress. The resolution was approved largely along party lines, with Republicans calling the measure unnecessary partisan politics.
Wilson apologized to the White House last week, but congressional Democrats said he owed the chamber a similar statement of regret.
Steele said Democrats are just trying to divert attention from what he called the president's "wildly unpopular government-run health care plan."
"Injecting race into the debate over critical issues facing American families doesn't create jobs, reform our health care system or reduce the growing deficit. It only divides Americans rather than uniting us to find solutions to challenges facing our nation," he said.