Saturday, September 19, 2009

Is It Racism? Of Course It Is.

Ever since Joe Wilson’s outburst of “you lie!” during President Obama’s speech to the joint session of Congress, various people have been weighing in on what it meant and more broadly, what the virulent protests against his plans for universal health care may mean.

Former President Jimmy Carter’s statements that much of this opposition, including Joe Wilson’s outburst, is fueled by racism, has ignited a discussion of the “elephant in the room” – that on top of being a tax-and-spend liberal in the eyes of the right wing, President Obama is a black man. Never mind that he is half white, if his skin color isn’t light, he’s considered black by a large portion of the population and as such, is subject to suspicion.

Maureen Dowd, in a recent op-ed piece, also raised this issue.

"I tended to agree with some Obama advisers that Democratic presidents typically have provoked a frothing response from paranoids — from Father Coughlin against F.D.R. to Joe McCarthy against Truman to the John Birchers against J.F.K. and the vast right-wing conspiracy against Bill Clinton.

But Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted “liar” at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it."

David Brooks, in a recent op-ed column, doesn't think opposition to Obama is about race. He talked about the role of populism in American politics: the innate enmity between the idea of a strong central government, led by an educated elite, and a decentralized, state-led government led by "the people." Jefferson personified the latter. He was inherently suspicious of government and didn’t like the idea of giving too much power to any central government. Hamilton, on the other hand, was a strong proponent of a central government.

"This populist tendency continued through the centuries. Sometimes it took right-wing forms, sometimes left-wing ones. Sometimes it was agrarian. Sometimes it was more union-oriented. Often it was extreme, conspiratorial and rude.

The populist tendency has always used the same sort of rhetoric: for the ordinary people and against the fat cats and the educated class; for the small towns and against the financial centers."

These factions have been warring ever since, taking various forms throughout history, from Father Coughlin and other opponents of FDR’s New Deal, to those who fought Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms.

Brooks pointed out how the white protesters were mingling with black people on the Mall in Washington last weekend so obviously they couldn’t be racists. Of course, we all know that is meaningless; many people can have subtle racist feelings and still say "some of their best friends are black," as the old saying goes.

However, the words on the signs we are seeing at the health care town halls and at the September 12 march on Washington are very telling. (This one is from a New Hampshire town hall meeting).Another favorite is "I want my country back." What is this supposed to mean? Back from whom? The Democrats? Or is it from that black man who somehow got elected President? And if they’re really so worried about losing their country, where were these people when George W. Bush was taking more and more federal power and wiretapping their internet and phone connections?

My feeling is they didn’t care or notice as much because despite being descended from a long line of East Coast rich elites from Connecticut, George W. Bush, with his ordinary name, broad Texas accent and everyday way of speaking, sounded like “one of them.”

Barack Obama, with his exotic name and background, his ability to sound intelligent and educated when he speaks, and yes, his dark skin, does not seem like "one of them," despite the fact he came from much more humble beginnings than Bush.

This perception of him as "the other" has to have an effect on their level of anger and yes, fear. And part of that fear has to be that he is an African-American. He’s not the same color as they are. You don’t see black faces at these protests. The continual claims that Obama is a Muslim, that he wasn’t born in this country despite all the evidence that he was, are evidence of this. When people protested against FDR, LBJ or Clinton, this aspect was not part of the conversation.

There is also the fact that death threats against this President are 400% higher than for the previous president.

Does David Brooks really think that this would be the case if President Obama were white? And would people really be bringing guns to town halls if he were white? I’m not sure that they would.

Some of the people at these protests would deny emphatically that they are racist. They would vehemently assert, as Joe Wilson’s son did about his father that they "don’t have a racist bone" in their bodies. But racism is not always overt, even to those who harbor the feeling. It can be subconscious, it can be a result of cultural background, of things they heard when they were young and forgot about. It’s easy to subvert a racist feeling into a policy disagreement.

But to me the proof is the level of anger out there is way out of proportion to the issue at hand – health care. I mean, come on. We’re talking about a system to take care of people’s health. And Obama isn't even proposing a particularly radical change in our health care policies - no universal single-payer health plan in sight. This is not something that should inspire such fear and hatred. No, there has to be something more to it. And that something has to do with racism.

Of course, Democrats and supporters of Barack Obama aren’t allowed to say this. "Oh, they’re playing the race card," Obama’s opponents say if the suggestion is made that some of the opposition has to do with the color of his skin. "As soon as someone disagrees with him you call them a racist." (Of course they ignore the fact that George W. Bush's proponents immediately accused anyone who disagreed with them of not being patriotic!)

And President Obama knows this; he has been making the rounds on talk shows to support his universal health care plan, but of course has been asked about Jimmy Carter’s statements on racism. He has tried to defuse the importance of this issue in order not to add fuel to the fire.

But he knows it’s true. And so do we. To pretend that racism is not part of the opposition we are seeing out there is naïve at best and dangerous at worst.

Time will tell what President Obama will accomplish. Like most presidents he will probably be remembered for some important successes and some obvious failures. And that is how he should be remembered, and not for his race.

But we also must give him credit for the courage it took to run for President and become the first African-American President of the United States. He had to know there would be many who would oppose him simply for his race, and that he would be putting himself and his family in danger. But someone had to be first. And he has taken that step and that chance.

The vicious hate groups and right wing fringe that oppose him, and would oppose any African-American president, are a small segment of the overall population. But that doesn’t mean the racism does not exist in those who are most filled with hate and thus the most dangerous.

The vast majority of the country really doesn’t care whether Obama is black or white and does just agree or disagree with his policies. As time goes on, more and more of the country will be like them, and the idea of an African-American man (or woman) being president will be second nature and no longer an issue.

But it took one man, Barack Obama, to take the chance to be first. Let’s hope the Secret Service can keep him safe for his entire Presidency.


Tom Degan said...

Why is so much hatred being hurled toward President Obama? That's a no-brainer!

He's a Kenyan born Arab terrorist who wants to bring DEATH PANELS to this grand and glorious land of ours so he can pull the plugs on Granny and Gramps.

HE'S A LEFT WING SOCIALIST whose education was funded by the American Communist Party, MoveOn.Org, Barbara Streisand and Ed Asner.

He named his daughters Sasha and Malia - YO! WHAT'S UP WITH THAT???

He would prefer to have dinner with Mahatma Gandhi over Ronald Reagan. RONALD REAGAN!!!

He wants to start a TROTSKY FOR TOTS program for our children.

He's just an evil person!



My fellow Americans, heed my warning.

The Big, Black, Bolshevik Bogeyman is gonna git'cha!

It has not a thing to do with race.

I am a white person. I would not lie to you.

But seriously, folks....

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY

Annette said...

Great post girl.. I bow to your greatness.. this is one of the best on this I have ever seen.. and I totally agree with you.. and I too hope the Secret Service do their job and keep him and the rest of the family safe.. He is so active and wants to be out so much it must be hard for them.. doubly hard after reading Tom's post today that they are short of help..

Thanks for this..

Fran said...

There is a medical condition known as oppositional defiant disorder.... a person who continues to rebel & escalate & argue about everything.

That is how some people are acting, regardless what Obama does, they will be opposed-- even if it is in their own best interest to agree.

We see that in the health care reform, and lately a discussion about how banks should have access to college loans.

Neither insurance companies, big pharma, or bankers have demonstrated any worthiness of trust, yet there is a demand for the status quo.

Take out the middle man, band together & save money & get better services.

It amazes me to see the cost savings that would happen under these consolidations....
but that would mean working together.

How crazy is that???

themom said...

Excellent post. I agree wholeheartedly with all you have stated. I still believe that there will be ONE person out there who takes all this racial speak, and dare to be the one who wants to go down in history - by targeting our president. I have spoken to several in this area who are openly racist - and they know where I stand, thus being called a "n****er lover!" This is the mentality in this area...I'm sure it is quite evident in other areas as well.

I will stand up for our president and all the good he is doing and hopes to do. I'm realistic enough to know that there will be things I don't 100% agree with - that's democracy.

Have a great weekend.

TomCat said...

Well done, Maui. I don't know whether racism inspired Wilson's comment, but I do know, based on his associations and voting record that he is a racist.

I also think it possible that may of the people behind the astro-turf protests are not racist themselves, but are cynically exacerbating the racism known to pervade the extreme right Republican base in order to generate opposition to Obama's programs.

In addition, it might serve us well to remember, that people of all races elected Obama, and that this racism, upsetting as it is, is limited to the wing-nut fringe, aka the GOP base.

Comrade Kevin said...

I probably shouldn't have been so surprised to see this. History is full of times where reform measures end up polarizing the country along fiercely partisan lines.

morb320 said...

I agree with what you say in your post. I have the unique experience of being different from Brooks in that I am a 50+ year old AA female. Brooks and the other talking heads have no idea at all about people of color because they've spent most of their lives avoiding contact with them, and when they do have contact, it's limited. They lack the capacity to open themselves us so that they could get to know more about people of color. Unless you've been there and experienced it, you cannot provide an accurate analysis of anything, and to my knowledge Brooks has never had to sit in the back of buses, use segregated restrooms, attend segregated schools, get run out of "whites only" parks," etc. I live in an area where racism has always been a part of the fabric of society. I really can't recall a time in my life when I wasn't confronted with racism, whether it was overt or covert. People here hate Obama and really can't provide valid reasons for their hate. When GWB was prez, they were immensely happy and supportive even though he screwed up in a major way. They're still defending him. Brooks and the rest of the racism-deniers cannot tell me anything about the subject. Nothing.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I think you're absolutely right. People are projecting their worst fears on Obama because they see him as fundamentally unlike themselves. And that really is what racism is all about.

Dave Dubya said...

Good job on such a gripping and thoughtful post.

Remember when the Radical Right accused us Lefties of BDS? Bush Derangement Syndrome was their perception of our reality-based outrage at the lies and war crimes of the Bush Gang.

By contrast, isn't it amazing how wildly extreme their own ignorance-based Obama Derangement Syndrome has become?

Truly a diagnosable disorder of thought and mood.

Christopher said...

I call it, "Obama Derangement Syndrome."

It's rampant and I've seen it in posters on the left and the right.

They just can't wrap their furtive little brains around the idea that America elected a man of color.

Me said...

It's a tragedy that here we are, in 2009, and racism is alive and rampant in this country.


Mauigirl said...

Tom, great rant there - and thanks for linking to your blog, now I'll have to be adding another blog to the list of blogs I want to have time to read!

Annette, I know, I read TomCat's post too and it is worrisome!

Fran, you are right in your diagnosis! And yes, apparently we are crazy if we think they can work together to actually solve the problem. Sad, isn't it?

Themom, it's scary to think you are being called that name because of your support of Obama. I forget myself sometimes how different other parts of the country are. Of course there are probably plenty of people here in the east who feel that way underneath but are just not as apt to say it out loud. I really am afraid of exactly what you are talking about and hope it doesn't happen.

TomCat, you make a very good point. These people who are out protesting probably wouldn't be there if it wasn't for those behind the scene who are getting the misiinformation and inflammatory comments out there to get them riled up. And yes, it is a fringe element who are the true racists, but a loud and scary one.

Kevin, you're right, there have been things like this throughout our history. But it sure is frustrating, because then nothing gets fixed.

Morb320, thanks so much for your comment and your perspective on this issue. I agree, no one who hasn't been in the situation of being a target of racism can imagine what racism really feels like and how pervasive it is. You make excellent points.

Ruth, you're right, it is projection of their worst fears on him that does it. It's tied up in that whole claim that many of them say - that they "still don't know anything about him." Please, of course they do. They just mean they don't trust him because he's not white and therefore is not understandable to them no matter how much information they may be given.

Dave and Christopher, you're right, it IS "Obama Derangement Syndrome." Nothing he does will ever be right for them.

Hill, I know - it is very sad that we are still in such a bad place regarding race in this country. I really had hopes that the election of Obama would start to change that but it has just hardened those who were never in favor of him in the first place.

Utah Savage said...

The is one of the best pieces I've read in a long time. You have really covered it.

I must also compliment your readers. The comments thread is also really interesting.

I have been MIA, rewriting the novel again. I think I'm improving it, but... Maybe I'm just avoiding having to write a query letter. Anyway I miss reading blogs. Glad I chose to read yours today.

Mauigirl said...

Utah! Good to see you, glad you came here as well! Yes, the comments have all been very interesting. I have been kind of MIA myself lately as I've been too busy to get to all the blogs I'd like to have time to read so I can relate!

Randal Graves said...

Maybe all those well-meaning folks just want Obama to go back home to Kenya because he misses it so, and you all jump to conclusions. We know who the real racists are, hmph, etc.

jmsjoin said...

Obama is guilty of being Black! We thought we had finally achieved something great, a bit of equality, what America really stands for by getting Obama elected as President of the United States.

What we did was unveil the reality of America, Racist America and I fear it will not go way but will get much worse.

We elected Obama as President because he was the best person for the job of leading us out of the dark tunnel Bush had us in. We thought we found our shining knight.

There are too many that do not want our America fixed and worse they do not want a Black man as President and will never accept it or stop. All of the asinine crap we have been watching from day one can tolerate racial equality but only on their terms and if they as white America control America.

They will tolerate racial equality if forced to however to a lot of white Americans a Black President is unacceptable! I am physically sick at what we have been seeing from day one and what we saw at President Obama's health care speech from imbecilic Republicans and sadly it gets worse every day.

Retired Congressman Tom Tancredo who I can not stomach was hooting and hollering when Congressman Joe Wilson interrupted President Obama when he reiterated that illegal immigrants will not be covered period by his healthcare reform Bill yelling "You're a Liar"

TomCat said...

Thanks Maui. Obama summed it up best when he said, "I was black before the election."

libhom said...

Our society is so neurotic that being racist is acceptable, but talking about racism is not. This is so sick.

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