The ugliness of racism in America was on full display on the Republican side of the House chamber tonight as President Obama delivered a speech on health care reform to a joint session of Congress. While it is customary for the minority party to sit in silence when in disagreement with aspects of a speech of a President of the opposing party, what occurred tonight was a shameful display of the ugliness that has gripped our nation since the election of the nation’s first Black President. To hear a Member of Congress shout out “you lie” and see signs held aloft by our lawmakers in opposition was a disgrace, and an affront to the office of the President.
It is clear, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there are elements in our nation, many serving in the Republican Caucus, who are beside themselves over the presence of a Black President. What else would drive protesters to show up at events bearing firearms where the President is appearing? What else would drive the anger of a professed minister to wish death upon the President? What would drive a Member of Congress, Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, to shout disrespectfully at the President in the middle of his speech? When have we witnessed Members of Congress waving papers while the President is speaking? These self-professed “patriots” are bigots, plain and simple.
If there was ever a time to stand up and fight, the time is now. This is no longer about health care. This is about the future of America and whether we will allow relics of our nation’s ugly past to set the agenda for its future. We knew all along that the election of the first Black President would generate a wave of hatred. However, we were hopeful, perhaps naively so, that our nation had progressed to the point where people of reason would not allow hatemongers to rule the day. Sadly, the worst of our nation, the trivial minded, hateful and deceitful demagogues have skewed the public debate with outright lies and hyperbole. It would be one thing if we were engaged in a tough, but honest, debate over policy differences. What we are witnessing now is the resentment of those whose only interest is to obstruct the potential success of the 44th President of the United States.
I admire President Obama’s high-mindedness and his commitment to breach the partisan divide. Yet, there comes a time when a response is necessary to those who are intent on dividing the American public with fear tactics and appealing to racial animus. It is not the responsibility of the President to do so. It is our responsibility. The “calling out” that President Obama promised toward those who deceive the public is our cross to bear, not his. While he serves as our President, the task of changing this nation is not his alone. We must take it upon ourselves to confront the racists who are trying to sow seeds of chaos. How? Write a letter. Make a phone call. Send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Picket the office of Members of Congress who make outlandish and inaccurate claims. Support organizations that are working toward progressive reforms, not just in health care but also in all aspects of public policy. Leave no stone unturned in making your voice heard. Change can only take place when we engage as active participants in the democratic process.
Black Americans are conditioned to seethe in silence, to control our rage when disrespected and to act civilly even when we know we have been wronged. It has been inbred as a survival mechanism but in the 21st century, we must do more than just survive. We must free ourselves from such unnatural restraints and begin finally to claim the respect we have earned as the foundation of American society, and to demand payment of the promissory note that Dr. King spoke of from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.