When Joe Wilson, the previously unknown but now infamous South Carolina congressman, shouted out “You lie!” to Barack Obama during the president’s health care address to Congress Wednesday night, it seemed, most of all, really, really rude, and you didn’t have to be a Democrat to think that.
It was also, some hold, racist – at least on a subconscious level. An online commentary by the Project on Race in Political Communication, called “The Racial Context for Joe Wilson’s Outburst,” which has been twittering around a good bit, makes the case.
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 the deeply held negative predispositions about African Americans.
This will be dismissed outright by many – and by that I mean many white people – on the grounds that race is too often and too readily invoked as an “excuse,” including in many a case where it has no place.
It is absolutely true that just because someone opposes Obama, criticizes Obama, disagrees with Obama – even shouts out “You lie!” to Obama – that doesn’t necessarily mean he is a bigot with a Confederate flag in his living room who hates that this country has a black president. And the authors of the article – Stephen Maynard Caliendo, associate professor of political science at North Central College in Illinois, and Charlton McIlwain, associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University – rightly point that out, even while themselves embracing certain stereotypes about “white privilege” and the “myth of the black character.”
But it is also true that dismissing race outright – not just in this case, but as part of the whole birthers “controversy,” the education speech “controversy,” and other “controversies” yet to come – would be entirely naive. We are not a “post-racial” nation, period. And if Obama’s election was supposed to prove that we are, in many ways it has shown just the opposite. Google “Joe Wilson and racist.” Or “Obama and racist.” When nothing comes up, we’ll be there.
If Caliendo and McIlwain are right, there is a problem. If they are wrong, there is a problem, because a lot of people feel they are right. So I suppose we will have to have a lot more Beer Summits either way. And even if Joe Wilson was just being rude, maybe he should attend, along with all the people who consider him racist.