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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 9/10/09

The Racial Context for Joe Wilson's Outburst

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South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouted "you lie" at the president during his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night. Few would doubt this was a sign of disrespect that most Americans would find objectionable. But beyond Wilson's callous disdain for the office of President, it is important to understand the racial connotations involved, and the climate that gave rise to them.

We do not assert that Joe Wilson is a bigot; his personal racial attitudes are, perhaps ironically, beyond the scope of this incident. Rather, the consistent branding of President Obama as "other" by his opponents has created a context within which it is perceived that Obama need not be treated as other presidents have been treated. The creation of that "otherness," while possibly motivated by racial animosity, is certainly rendered more effective as a result of deeply held negative predispositions about African Americans.

For at least two years, his political opponents — including Democratic opponents during the primary — have attempted to portray Barack Obama as "not one of us." He has been, at various times, referred to as communist/socialist/Marxist, elitist, corrupt, a terrorist sympathizer, foreign-born, a thug, fascist and even racist. In short, he is everything that we believe America is not. He is not "one of us." He is "other."

It is no surprise, then, that some parents felt it dangerous to let this stranger talk to their children on Tuesday, and it is no surprise that at least one member of Congress believed that it was appropriate to hurl an insult at him during a formal address. Keeping in mind that there is a small but vocal group of Americans and conservative leaders who continue to perpetuate the story that Obama is not a legitimate president because of his birth status, perhaps we should not be surprised that this president, then, does not command even the most minimal level of respect from some of his elected political opponents.

By and large, Whites in America go out of their way to excuse such behavior as being impolite or unfortunate, but not at all related to race. If one believes that the threshold of what is to be considered to be "racist" is that an epithet must be hurled (e.g., if Wilson would have yelled, "You lying n-word!"), it is comfortable to believe that in a "post-racial" nation, such behavior is divorced from the nation's rich history of oppression and White supremacy.

A more sophisticated understanding of the way racism works systemically and psychologically renders such comforting dismissals to be inappropriate. Contemporary racism is not largely about lynching or legalized segregation. Rather, we must be reflective about the myriad ways in which we are tacitly socialized to believe stereotypes about persons of color. Those beliefs reside in our subconscious and affect our attitudes and behaviors in ways that we often do not recognize. All Americans who are attentive to our potential for prejudice have been in situations where we "catch" ourselves with a racially insensitive thought that surprises and horrifies us. Other times, those thoughts drive our actions without our knowledge. If we only define "racism" as overt bigotry, we ignore the most important elements of a system that continues to perpetuate privilege for Whites.

Attacks on President Obama are not, in and of themselves, racist. They might be made without racist intent; they can even be made without racist effect if they do not find greater results because of ingrained stereotypes about African Americans. Criticizing the president for being willing to push for a clean energy bill, for example, is likely to be devoid of racial effects. However, arguing that he is lying, is corrupt, or has friends who are criminal does have a racist effect because it is easier for us to believe such claims about an African American, as they comprise the myth of the Black character.

So we need not know Congressman Wilson's heart to know that his behavior is reflective of a broader racist criticism of President Obama. In effect, the outburst was not really about Joe Wilson. Some of the folks who make racist appeals may be aware that they are doing so, but others very well may not. Irrespective of intent, however, we must be aware that a context of "otherness" has been established around this president that set the stage for him to be treated differently than other presidents this week, first by the parents of schoolchildren and then by a member of Congress.

Congressman Wilson quickly apologized Wednesday evening for his behavior. Like with all apologies, we should be thoughtful about the context that facilitated the behavior while we forgive the act itself if we seek to prevent its recurrence.


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Stephen Maynard Caliendo is associate professor of political science at North Central College. Charlton McIlwain is associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. They are co-authors of the forthcoming book "Race (more...)
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