Why won’t they call it racism?

September 23, 2009

The right wing has gone on the offensive in the debate over health care--and the Democrats are letting them get away with it, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

ALMOST FROM the moment the two words "you lie" left South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's mouth during President Barack Obama's speech to Congress on health care, the mainstream media started filling the airwaves with an endless commentary about them.

But rather than shed any light on the incident, the media and the U.S. political establishment have trivialized it--turning it into a case of the demise of "civility" in American political life. "It was an obvious breach of decorum," right-wing Texas Sen. John Cornyn piously declared. "There's a time and a place for everything, and that was obviously not the time or the place."

Not only does this diminish the gravity of what's at stake in the health care debate gripping Washington, but it sweeps under the rug the racism and intolerance that has characterized the Republican right's response--seen in the ranting of protesters at town hall meetings this summer.

The important thing about Wilson's outburst isn't that it was bad etiquette, but that it gives confidence to racists and right-wingers--like the thousands of tea party demonstrators who gathered in Washington in mid-September.

Joe Wilson's outburst during Barack Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress
Joe Wilson's outburst during Barack Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd's description of the scene in Congress rang true:

Surrounded by middle-aged white guys--a sepia snapshot of the days when such pols ran Washington like their own men's club--Joe Wilson yelled "You lie!" at a president who didn't. But, fair or not, what I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!

Of course, any such charges of racism were dismissed by right-wing figures--who instinctively accused Democrats instead of playing the "race card." Newt Gingrich, for example, told Fox News, "I think it's very destructive for America to suggest that we can't criticize a president without it being a racial act."

But sadly, Gingrich's argument was backed up by the president of the United States himself. When former President Jimmy Carter commented that the incident was an example of the racism that exists in America, Obama was quick to disagree in a statement to the press. He continued to downplay the bigotry on display against him, even making Carter--rather than Wilson--the butt of a joke in an appearance on the David Letterman show.

ACTUALLY, THE fact that a white Southern Democrat like Carter would make such an observation about Wilson is an interesting development in itself--as Dowd's fellow Times columnist Bob Herbert pointed out, "During his presidential campaign in 1976, [Carter] blithely let it be known that he had no problem with residents 'trying to maintain the ethnic purity of their neighborhoods.'"

As Herbert continued, "I have no patience with those who want to pretend that racism is not an out-and-out big deal in the United States, as it always has been. We may have made progress, and we may have a Black president, but the scourge is still with us."

For someone like Joe Wilson, there's a career to be made in stirring up bigotry and suspicion. In 2000, he was a leader of the right's effort to keep the Confederate flag--a symbol of slavery and white supremacy--waving over the South Carolina state capitol. Wilson has been a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. When a Black woman revealed that she was the daughter of Strom Thurmond, the 1948 segregationist candidate for president, Wilson denounced it as a "smear."

Wilson's bigotry doesn't end there, either. He opposes women's right to choose abortion and favors banning LGBT people from marrying. In 2007, he voted no on prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2006, Wilson supported the construction of a fence on the Mexican border, and two years before that, he voted in favor of a law that would require hospitals to report undocumented immigrants who sought medical treatment.

Now, he's gone from a nobody Republican House member to a national name, he's raised millions of dollars in political contributions, and the right wing has gained another figure to rally around.

Many liberals have been too quick to laugh off the right's growing prominence. Though the Washington, D.C., tea party demonstration was nowhere near the 2 million that Fox News claimed, it was a substantial turnout--and with its many calls for "taking back our country," it was an ugly carnival of reaction that can set the stage for further racist violence if not confronted.

WITH TENSIONS over the health care debate running high, Obama and the Democrats are trying to turn down the heat.

But this is exactly the wrong thing to do. In fact, the Democrats' response to Wilson's outburst shows how their refusal to take up the real issues only gives further ground to the right.

After all, when Wilson yelled "You lie!" he was responding to Obama's guarantee that his health care proposal would not cover undocumented immigrants.

Instead of speaking out for a single-payer health care system--which he once supported--that would cover everyone and cut out private insurance companies, or insisting that immigrant workers deserved for health care to be a right, like every worker in the U.S., Obama responded to the right wing's smears by making it clear that he agreed with discriminating against immigrants.

Indeed, Montana Sen. Max Baucus' health care legislation--the proposal most closely associated with the White House position--explicitly denies undocumented workers any access to government-administered health care programs.

In other words, the right-wing bigots got a stamp of approval for their immigrant bashing from the White House and the national Democratic Party.

Obama should be defending immigrant workers, not attacking them. And the Democrats should likewise be exposing Wilson and politicians like him.

Wilson's opposition to immigration, abortion and LGBT rights is about scapegoating a section of the population--and deflecting attention away from workers' real concerns. As Herbert put it:

Republicans have been openly feeding off of race hatred since the days of Dick Nixon. Today's conservative activists are carrying that banner proudly. What does anybody think is going on when, as Anderson Cooper pointed out on CNN, one of the leaders of the so-called tea party movement, Mark Williams, refers to the president of the United States as an Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug, and a racist in chief.

After all these years of race-baiting and stirring the pot of hatred for political gain, it's too much to ask the leaders of the Republican Party to step forward and denounce this spreading stain of reprehensible conduct. Republicans are trying to ride that dependable steed of bigotry back to power.

But it's time for other Americans, of whatever persuasion, to take a stand, to say we're better than this. They should do it because it's right. But also because we've seen so many times what can happen when this garbage gets out of control.

Herbert is right. But he should be consistent about his call to action. Herbert didn't criticize Obama himself for downplaying the issue of Wilson's racism and the bigotry of the right.

What's needed is for this to become a two-sided debate--people who are for providing health care for all and those who aren't; people who support immigrant rights and those who don't; those who fuel racism and bigotry and those who actively oppose it.

When the Democrats bend over backwards to find so-called common ground with the Republicans, they give the right space to grow. As journalist Gary Younge, writing in the Nation, described the right's success in recasting the health care debate:

These people gain the kind of purchase that shifts them from an irritant to an obstacle only when there is a vacuum of leadership and an absence of good alternatives. It is only under these conditions that they are able to cast unreasonable doubt in the reasonable minds of those who seek clarification, encouragement or a stake in any substantive change. This is precisely what has happened with the health care debate over the past few months...

A decisive portion of the country is desperate to be convinced. They know that what they have now is terrible, but have yet to be convinced that what might come is better. How could it be otherwise when the very person who launched the reform process--the president--keeps hedging on its most essential element: the public option?

The only thing that is controversial about universal health care is that America does not have it. The idea that a Democratic president with substantial Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress might fail to pass health care reform--well, that's enough to make anyone crazy.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans will pay attention to our demands unless they face pressure. That's why it's important for people outside Washington to organize a left-wing opposition from the grassroots up--for example, by building for the largest possible turnout at the National Equality March for LGBT rights on October 11.

We have to show that the right really is a bigoted minority--and that we're ready to stand up for justice.

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