Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Joe Wilson: Racism in America rears its ugly head


I am not a huge believer in protocol and quietly and respectfully listening to what you consider to be evil lies. I kind of enjoy the spectacle of the British Parliament where opposition members get to boo at the Prime Minister. So maybe, to that degree, I should be less upset about Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” outburst during the President’s speech on health care. Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker condemns such impropriety while also minimizing and lumping it with hecklers from the galleries (“Although heckling by individuals usually emanates from the public gallery, group histrionics are a time-honored tradition in American political theater.”) it is different because it has never been done before when a President has addressed a Joint Session of Congress. The real question is “Why did this representative do it at this time with this President?” That is the question that Maureen Dowd supplies with some information to consider: her point, in her op-ed piece “Boy, oh Boy!”, is that it was racism, an extremely racist act performed by an extremely racist man because he cannot accept that a black man is the President of the United States and needs to be accorded the respect due that office. ( There is a better than even chance that she is right.

Now, I don’t know that Joe Wilson is a racist, in the sense that I cannot look into his heart, or his brain, to know what he really feels or believes. But he absolutely has long manifested racist behaviors and provided racist leadership. He, Ms. Dowd informs us “…belonged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, led a 2000 campaign to keep the Confederate flag waving above South Carolina’s state Capitol and denounced as a ‘smear’ the true claim of a black woman that she was the daughter of Strom Thurmond, the ’48 segregationist candidate for president.” That is all racist, and remains so no matter how many sons of the South want to tell us that the Confederacy was about everything but slavery. Even to the extent that it might have been, the only reason to remember it and keep it up is to be racist, if in a thinly-veiled way. Mr. Thurmond, Mr. Wilson’s mentor, and all the racist, segregationist colleagues of his era, deserve to be remembered – as wrong. As perpetuators of an inhumanly evil system that derives from slavery. Not, in any way, shape or form, to be emulated. Let us instead award accolades to the Southern Senator and President Lyndon Johnson, who may or may not have been racist inside, but outside, where it mattered, pushed through the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act. There can be no quarter given, ever, in any sense, to racism in public policy.

I do not know if Mr. Wilson and his Republican colleagues are cynically using racist references to push their anti-people policies, perpetuating the ultimate reason for people in power to push such issues, divide and conquer, or if he really thinks this way; if, as Ms. Dowd says, he “…clearly did not like being lectured and even rebuked by the brainy black president presiding over the majestic chamber.” In any case, he must be soundly and unequivocally castigated and repudiated, not for interrupting, but for thinking he, as a white guy, could do it because this President was not a white guy.

And let us remember that the other nonsense being propagated by either honest or opportunistic racists are wrong, are lies. Having a black President is great, but it does not reverse the tide of history or put racism behind us. Saying that “white men are discriminated against” by affirmative action is only true to the extent that “when you’ve had the wind at your back for your whole life, a calm day seems unfair.” (I wish I could get the attribution for that great quote!) On the same day that Ms. Dowd’s column appeared, Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammed had a guest op-ed in the NY Times , “The Recession’s Racial Divide”,, in which they carefully and systematically demonstrate how much worse this recession has been for black people than white – because, despite lies widely propagated by the right wing, they started so much farther behind. “In fact,” they write, “you could say that for African-Americans the recession is over. It occurred from 2000 to 2007, as black employment decreased by 2.4 percent and incomes declined by 2.9 percent. During those seven years, one-third of black children lived in poverty, and black unemployment — even among college graduates — consistently ran at about twice the level of white unemployment.
That was the black recession. What’s happening now is more like a depression

They assert that “Thanks to a legacy of discrimination in both hiring and lending, they’re less likely than whites to be cushioned against the blows by wealthy relatives or well-stocked savings accounts.”
For those continuing doubters, here are some more facts that support their assertion:
--“In 2008, on the cusp of the recession, the typical African-American family had only a dime for every dollar of wealth possessed by the typical white family.
--Only 18 percent of blacks and Latinos had retirement accounts, compared with 43.4 percent of whites.
--…even high-income blacks were almost twice as likely to end up with subprime home-purchase loans as low-income whites — even when they qualified for prime mortgages, even when they offered down payments.”

Ehrenreich and Muhammad do attribute some blame to the individuals caught in this situation, and to those who encourage it. Specifically, they cite a “cultural factor” that is “…widely shared with whites — a penchant for ‘positive thinking’ and unwarranted optimism.” They note that this has taken on a “…theological form of the ‘prosperity gospel.’ Since ‘God wants to prosper you’ all you have to do to get something is ‘name it and claim it,’” and name both the black evangelist Creflo Dollar and white megachurch pastor Joel Osteen as propagators of this “gospel”. They do not, interestingly, mention Oprah Winfrey in this article, although Ehrenreich has cited her before as one of the leading figures purveying the “positive thinking” mantra to both blacks and whites (“The Power of Negative Thinking”, NY Times Sept 24, 2008, Although not talking about racism, David Brooks (NY Times Sept 15, 2009,, does address this issue of “me”-ness, comparing the humility of Americans – soldiers, politicians, celebrities, and the rest of us, at the end of World War II. “When you look from today back to 1945, you are looking into a different cultural epoch, across a sort of narcissism line. Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then….Everything that starts out as a cultural revolution ends up as capitalist routine....Today, immodesty is as ubiquitous as advertising, and for the same reasons.”

“’I did not take a racial connotation from Mr. Wilson’s remarks,’ said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, who introduced the resolution” to “rebuke” Mr. Wilson (House Rebukes Wilson for Shouting ‘You Lie, NY Times Sept 15, 2009, ’, but he added “I do believe that there are expressions throughout the country being made that are unusually harsh. I think the attacks being made on Mr. Obama are unusually vitriolic.” Yeah, racist.

Ehrenreich and Muhammad conclude: “So despite the right-wing perception of black power grabs, this recession is on track to leave blacks even more economically disadvantaged than they were. Does a black president who is inclined toward bipartisanship dare address this destruction of the black middle class? Probably not. But if Americans of all races don’t get some economic relief soon, the pain will only increase and with it, perversely, the unfounded sense of white racial grievance.”

Of course, this would require us, as a society, to actually deal with truth, to actually look at what is happening to actual people. When we have “jobless recoveries”, in which Wall Street has “recovered” while we celebrate the loss of more jobs because it is fewer than last month (and we are 9.4 million jobs down from before the “recession”), it is not surprising that reactionary populists will take this as an opportunity to try to garner support for their agendas by spreading racist lies. But we have to take responsibility for calling them what they are, not letting them happen, fighting back against deceit and shameful pandering.

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