Attempts to show equivalence to Joe Wilson’s heckling of Barack Obama last night began probably just as soon as those on the right realized exactly how bad it looked to have an angry white man, sitting in a sea of other frowny-faced white men, screaming “You lie!” at the President of the United States. The arguments are as lame as they are predictable, and the fact that the best they can offer is, “The Democrats shouted ‘No’ at George W. Bush!” reveals just how deeply afraid they are that the conversation will turn to the uncomfortable truth that a lot of the opposition to Obama is… yes… about race.
This is a difficult topic to discuss without sounding strident. Attorney General Eric Holder took a lot of crap last February when he made the not-exactly-groundbreaking observation that we are “a nation of cowards” when it comes to discussing issues of race, which pretty much proved his point but also had the effect of making attempts to discuss the issue even more toxic. This is great for those whose disdain for Obama springs in part from the fact that he’s black, because if we don’t mention that aspect of it, there’s no need to defend it.
I’m not saying that you can’t disagree with the President on the substance of the issues. I don’t doubt that there are some on the other end of the ideological spectrum who believe very deeply that it is immoral to give health care to poor people. And I understand that society has become much more partisan of late. Even though Republicans controlled the White House for 52 years of the 20th century to the Democrats’ 48, they seem to feel like they’re the natural party of power in the executive branch, and any Democratic president is somehow a usurper who took office in a nefarious manner. I’m sure that if Barack Obama were white there would still be a ton of resentment toward him simply for his party affiliation.
But he’s not white, is he? He’s a black man, with a black wife, and a weird black name. Even worse, he’s a dazzling orator who doesn’t fit any of the negative stereotypes we’ve been taught about black men, which, ironically, makes him even more threatening. There is an undeniable discomfort among a sizable number of white Americans who see themselves being supplanted at the top of the power structure and cannot help but be resentful and afraid. And with good reason; they’ve been told for the last hundred years that no matter how bad off they might have it, at least they can look down at blacks, who have it worse. And now their president is black? It’s hard to process.
Does this sound crazy? I could see how it might, particularly if you discount the fact that “socialist” is now an epithet tossed at someone who authorized billions of dollars to bail out major financial services corporations. Or if you view the protesters who showed up at presidential events brandishing intimidating weapons as simple Second Amendment supporters. Or if you think that the massive outcry over the President’s delivery of a banal message to schoolchildren on the importance of education was just about policy differences. Or if you believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is secretly Muslim. I could see you thinking that there was no racial component to Obama-hatred in those cases.
Otherwise? Be honest. It is almost impossible not to see the racial aspect of the whole thing. Am I saying that Rep. Wilson shouted “You lie!” at the President last night out of sheer racism? Of course not. But let’s not pretend that there wasn’t just a little bit of that going on there. (Although he may not be the best example.) So let’s acknowledge it. Repeatedly. Republicans will scream about how unfair it all is, but this is a party that built its modern successes on a legacy of completely unsubtle racial polarization. They had forty years to reap the benefits of all that. Now it’s time they pay the bill.
See, I told you! It’s impossible not to sound strident on this subject. Sorry about that.