Joe Wilson (R-SC) is the embodiment of the right wing fringe. His ignorance of the truth, his fear mongering, and his lack of respect for the President have become standard fare for the extreme right. But what is the motivation behind Mr. Wilson’s remarks and is there a broader indictment to be made on our society writ large?
To say that Mr. Wilson’s history on race and racial sensitivity is troubling would be an understatement.
In mid-December 2003, when Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the illegitimate daughter of a black housekeeper and the white segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond came forward with the bombshell that she was the illegitimate daughter of the recently-deceased patriarch of South Carolina politics, Representative Wilson, a former page of Thurmond’s, immediately told The State newspaper that he didn’t believe Williams. He deemed the revelation “unseemly.” And he added that even if she was telling the truth, she should have kept the inconvenient facts to herself: “It’s a smear on the image that [Thurmond] has as a person of high integrity who has been so loyal to the people of South Carolina,” Wilson said. Of course, Williams’ story was entirely true — and never really in doubt. Thurmond was 22 and Williams’ mother, a black maid working in his family home, was 16 when Williams was born in 1925. Thurmond supported Williams financially for decades.
The State story continued with Wilson wondering aloud how anyone could dare “diminish” one of his personal heroes.Wilson said it is unfair to debate rumors about Thurmond when he can no longer defend himself. The same goes for discussion of an affair Thomas Jefferson is said to have had with a slave. “Sometimes these things just go on,” Wilson said. “These are heroes of mine. I really hope these would be heroes to future generations of Americans. (The stories) are … a way to diminish their contributions to our country’s existence.”
Six days and several furious letters to the editor later, Wilson was forced to apologize. But, amazingly, he maintained that Williams should not have gone public.
The truth diminishes us? I guess it does if it is an inconvenient truth that exposes the hypocrisy of an über-racist that gets under the skin of his racist acolytes. I won’t even discuss the absurdity of Wilson’s depiction of Thurmond as a person of high integrity who has been loyal to the people of South Carolina. Probably true if you are a white South Carolinian. The reality of an African American daughter and an affair with an African American housekeeper is a smear? Would it have been a smear if Thurmond had had an affair with a white descendant of Jefferson Davis?
Wilson is a member of the Southern heritage group, Sons of Confederate Veterans, which favors secession and defends slavery. As a state legislator, Wilson went against his own party and voted with seven lone right-wingers to keep the Dixie Rebel flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol building.
Stephen Maynard Caliendo, an associate professor of political science at North Central College, and Charlton McIlwain, an associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University both fellows with The Project on Race in Political Communication, a nonprofit group with the mission to contribute to the state of knowledge in the field of political communication and share that information with the mass public in an accessible way, wrote in a recent editorial, “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.”
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.
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 nigger!”), 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 although Mr. Wilson’s history is troubling, to say the least, 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.