Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted 240-179 to formally chastise Joe Wilson for shouting "You lie!" at President Obama during his speech to Congress last week. 12 Democrats voted against the rebuke, and 7 Republicans voted for it.
But former President Jimmy Carter went the House one better. At a town hall in Atlanta on last night, he said of Wilson's outburst, "I think it's based on racism. There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president... Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on health care. It's deeper than that." Carter also told NBC Nightly News, in an interview that aired last night, "I think an overwhelming portion of the intentionally demonstrated animosity toward Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he is African-American. I live in the South, and I've seen the south come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country, that shared the south's attitude toward minority groups, particularly African-Americans." Nevertheless, racism "still exists and I think it has bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the south but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It's an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply."
A lot of people have made similar comments, but a former president — a white, Southern former president — making them is huge news. It means, for better or worse, that We Are Going to Talk About Race Now — at least for a news cycle or two. And that, of course, means we're going to hear from a lot of white men telling us racism is non-existent and/or beside the point.
This morning on the Today show , after white dude Frank Luntz told Matt Lauer that racism is totally not the issue here, Lauer got around to asking a person of color's opinion — author and academic Michael Eric Dyson — and their very first exchange could not sum up what's at the heart of the swirling bullshit more efficiently. Or lolsobbily:
Lauer: Michael, I don't know which is worse. Is it worse if some of this opposition to President Obama is fueled by outright racism, or is it worse if some liberals, in an attempt to defend President Obama and his plans, invoke the charge of racism to discredit the critics?
Dyson: Well clearly the first would be the problem, Matt. The existence of an abuse is far worse than those who trump it up. But let me say this: You don't ask the person who's been, you know, the abuser what the status of the progress is, you ask the people or the person who's been abused.
Yes, folks, it takes a prominent African-American scholar to explain that racism is actually worse than being called racist. And that the "charge of racism" is not a political trick to distract from the "real" issues, but an acknowledgment of a real issue too many Americans stubbornly and self-servingly refuse to recognize.
The point is not to determine whether Joe Wilson is a good person, but to look at what lies underneath the virulent anti-Obama rhetoric from the right, the flat-out lies being told about him — including that he is lying about easily verifiable facts — the insistence that his citizenship is in question, and thus his legitimacy as president. Also, you know, signs saying "The zoo has an African [lion], and the White House has a lyin' African."
And not for nothing, this idea that it's some great leap to even wonder if Joe Wilson, great defender of the Confederate flag — and white supremacists — might have been motivated at least in part by racism, would be laughable if it weren't so infuriating. I'll tell you what, it's a rare day when I think, "Right on, Maureen Dowd," but I sure did when she wrote of Wilson's tantrum, "[F]air or not, what I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!"
A whole lot of us heard that unspoken word, fair or not, and there is a perfectly good reason for that, which has something to do with what we know of Joe Wilson as a person, but much more to do with the way racism still thrives in this country, while we pretend we've transcended it. What was in Joe Wilson's heart and mind at that moment ultimately doesn't matter; what matters is that he's now become a folk hero for people who think an African-American man has no business being in charge. Racism is a factor here, regardless of what Wilson's defenders — who include his son and Michele Bachmann (R-LaLaLand) — say about his personality in particular. And yet, we're arguing not only about whether racism still exists, but whether racism itself is worse than being accused of racism. Are you kidding me?
According to MSNBC, Dick Harpootlian, former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, is of the opinion that Wilson was not motivated by racism, but he nevertheless acknowledges the more important issue: "You have a bunch of folks out there looking for some comfort in their racial issues. They have a problem with an African-American president." And they are finding that comfort in Joe Wilson's disrespectful and mendacious outburst. Wilson himself may not be a raging white supremacist, but the people who are believe he is on their side. And so far, he's made no move to reject that kind of support — or the money that comes with it.
Gosh Darn That Joe Wilson [Time]
Carter: Wilson comments 'based on racism' [MSNBC]
Wilson's son says Congressman is not racist [Brattleboro Reformer]
Joe Wilson: Right-wing Folk Hero [Politico]
Boy, oh, boy [NYT]
Joe Wilson Facing Formal Reprimand