Sunday, September 13, 2009

Rude, Yes. Racist, Not so Much

I found Maureen Dowd's op-ed in today's New York Times quite disturbing. Dowd argues that Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst during President Obama's speech to the joint session of Congress was underlined by his racism, and the racism of the south. What Dowd heard was, "You lie, boy!"

I agree that Congressman Wilson's action was out of line and unbecoming; he embarrassed himself, he embarrassed the Congress of the United States. However, I find it hard (and problematic) to connect his outburst to an underlying racism. Dowd lists some of Wilson's affiliations and his record, many of which can lead one to conclude that he's not a fan of Black people.

However, in a country where politics is such a dirty sport, and where extreme partisanship is the norm, we should be very careful to distinguish between what is politics as usual and what is more nefarious.

I think Dowd is right: there are segments of the population that are disgruntled and hate the idea of a Black president. However, I am not convinced that Wilson's rudeness is one more manifestation of this.

Picture from Psychology Today "credited to 'Getty Images,' 'AFP' (Agence France-Presse)"


Anonymous said...

I actually think that Maureen is making a valid point. Although I did not think about it in the moment (I was too focused on the maternal look of consternation that came to Nancy Pelosi's face immediately), the South has a history that we (you and me) Northerners do not know well. Their is a Southern perspective that is pervasive and has remained unchanged in many ways for a hundred years-- just hidden from sight post-Civil War/Civil Rights federal and state policies. But legal writings do not change a culture and an attitude...and that world view inspired and allowed the South Carolina politician's outburst.


Sonya Behnke said...

In light of Rep. Wilson's outburst, Serena Williams's death threats to a line judge, and Kanye West's outrageous behaviour at the VMAs, I've been doing some serious thinking recently about social norms.

We can never really say what motivates people to do things "in the heat of the moment." What is more interesting is the reaction that spreads after such a clear violation of a social norm. How we (collectively) react says a lot more about who we are than the behavior of a single person.

While the VMA crowd booed Kanye West for the rest of the evening after he stole Taylor Swift's thunder (although some point to a racial undertone driving both the action and the reaction here as well), one can't help but wonder how a man shouting "you lie!" at the President of the United States should result in pride and endless t-shirt slogans.

On the other hand, no one in Congress may have shouted and pointed fingers at President Bush, but surely we can't name a president who was more roundly and widely raked over the coals at every opportunity.

Whether racism drove this incident or not, this surely won't be the last time President Obama has to demand respect from his opponents.

Anonymous said...

I think the link between Wilson, Williams, and West is dead-on, and David Brooks also noticed a seeming trend in his column in todays New York Times (

And I absolutely think that Obama has an uphill battle with the South. But instead of focusing on Joe Wilson's existant or nonexistant issues with race, House Democrats would be supporting their leader best by dropping the push for additional apologies and adopting Obama's interest in passing healthcare policies with bipartisan support. Ongoing discussion about the outburst is simply counterproductive at this point.

Ihotu said...

Regardless of the motivating factors (of which I think there are many... both racist and political and economic and, and...let's not forget the "consequences," as Sonya brilliantly said. Wilson raised millions in campaign dollars after that outburst. He didn't have explain his point. He made it, and thousands rallied around. The bill in the Senate Financial Services Committee was substantially changed regarding undocumented immigrant access to health care, which if you run the numbers, actually may cost the system more since they will continue to use emergency services rather than preventative, regular care, which is CHEAPER. The insured will pay more in the end. But politics is politics, and Wilson was genius. Forget race, but consider who is going to win it.