By now, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina is a household name for his outburst during President Obama’s speech on health care before a joint session of Congress. The conservative Congressman could not hold his rage against the President and blurted out a very audible “You Lie” and interrupted Mr. Obama’s speech to the shock of Members and guests in the House chamber. It represented an alarming breach of protocol and revealed the deep-seated resentment some hold of the nation’s first Black President.
Clearly, there are opposing points of view on health care policy, and emotions often run high when people’s opinions are influenced by misinformation and fear drives their thinking. That is often the case in high pitched political battles but in the present situation it is at its most extreme. It would be easy to dismiss Congressman Wilson as just some uninformed quack but the stakes are too high to simply pass him off as an annoyance. The sentiment that Wilson conveyed, and the disrespect he conveyed in the process, point to a much larger trend that is developing; one that has consequences far greater than health care reform.
Last week the U.S. Census Bureau released data for 2008 that indicates almost one-quarter of all Blacks are living under the poverty line. At the same time, the current recession has overwhelmed many Blacks as is evidenced by record unemployment, particularly for Black males and young adults, and home foreclosures. Despite the overwhelming evidence that Blacks are faring the worse during this recession, the anger on display suggests that some whites are either being duped by the far-right or really are clueless as to truth about our nation’s economic hierarchy.
Judging by the venom that is being spewed across the airwaves, by elected officials and even so-called clergy, there seems to be a concerted effort afoot to stoke white resentment, and direct its uninformed rage at the President of the United States. The result is a level of public disrespect for the presidency that is likely unparalleled in American history. Compounding the situation has been the mainstream media’s reluctance to have a candid assessment of the opposition to this President and the role that race is playing in fueling animosity that is rising to the level of a serious security threat.
For his part, President Obama and his White House staff have chosen to try to stay above the fray. Even in the face of Rep. Wilson’s boorish behavior, the President was quick to accept the congressman’s apology and urged everyone to put the incident in the past. We appreciate the President’s calm demeanor and admire his resolve to engage the debate on a higher plain. His posture, however, does not dictate the manner by which the rest of should respond to this obviously calculated effort to diminish his standing. There are certain limitations to Mr. Obama’s effectiveness in critiquing our nation’s racial history and current practices, as we learned with his Philadelphia speech during the campaign. It is why all of us need to re-commit ourselves to the unfinished business of the civil rights era, and make parity the new standard for race relations and equity the focus of public policy.
If we allow the Joe Wilsons of this nation to go unanswered, if we do not take on the racists who are posing as journalists on cable television talk shows, the gun enthusiasts who shield the militia movement, and the sons and daughters of the Confederacy who fancy themselves “patriots,” we will have betrayed every effort, by every person from the founding of this Republic, through slavery and Jim Crow, and up to present day who has championed Blacks’ rights as American citizens. We are at war, and the sooner we engage the enemy, the quicker the United States will become a true democracy.