Wednesday, September 16, 2009
A Question of Racism . . . and Easy Labels . . .
First a bit of bio . . .
I come from the "South" - Northeast Texas up close to the Arkansas border - and just returned from a trip back home recently. So as dyed in the wool as I am, I've also lived in Europe for over 20 years. Came over to fight the Cold War, got married to a "local" and stayed . . . which is the short version.
I grew up at the end of Jim Crow, experienced desegration as a Sixth grader, heard lots of old and horrific stories from old men (some of whom were ex-Klansmen) about the "good ole days".
We as children were taught by Southern matrons who attempted to keep the ideals of the South alive in us. Most of what they passed on to us was very positive, about service and responsibility. Also, I was taught as a child that Memorial Day was not "our memorial day" since it commemorated only Union losses . . .
Of course there was a noticeable thread of racism through the entire society, like a poison. Read William Faulkner to get more on that . . .
But I would add that the South today is nothing like that what it was growing up in the 1960s. My generation failed to carry on and transfer those old attitudes - both among Southern whites and blacks. To condemn the South as "racist" based on its history is to ignore that history and the changes that have taken place over the last 40 years.
What is far closer to the truth is that America is a racist society. We're very much into the pecking order view and living abroad brings that out. When you first meet other Americans in a foreign country, often the first topic of conversation goes to ethnic background and where you "fit in" . . . Any "redneck" or "Mexican" for example scores kinda low.
So how to explain “Joe” Wilson and his outburst?
There is an element of racism, but it is the same level of "cultural racism" present in the country as a whole. What Wilson's outburst brings out is actually something worse imo. More on that at the close.
What makes Obama a target is not his race, but the whole complexus of things he represents, perhaps the least of all is his race. Had Colin Powell been elected as the first black president on the GOP ticket, do you think we would be having this discussion? Why did Bill Clinton (arguably the most successful Southern president in US history) and Al Gore - both white Southerners - both get taken apart the way they did? Racism? What a hoot!
The radical right has been able to frame the political discussion in our country in very simple terms and have been attacking the legitimacy of Democratic political leaders for some time now. In terms of the nature of the attacks consider that Clinton was accused of murdering people, running drugs, "hanging coke spoons from the White House X-mas tree" and in the end was impeached for (you know the rest) . . . Al Gore was ludicrously tarred as a "serial liar" based on a series of lies propagated about him . . . former Alabama governor Siegelman is still sitting in prison on trumped up charges . . . and former NY governor Spitzer was targeted and brought down barely a month after having made very serious and substantive corruption charges against Bush's economic policies. If you believe that it was all about “hookers”, then you haven’t been paying attention . . .
These attacks are not about race, but about gaining, retaining and using absolute power, without even the fig leaf of any accountability.
What is really driving the anger and confusion in the South is that people there are overwhelmed with change. Much of the change has been positive, and people will admit that, but much is also very negative and economic-driven in various ways. Southerners feel that the country is going to the dogs and they are angry, but like the vast majority of Americans they are angry at the wrong people.
People have to lash out at something and "liberals" are the target that they have been conditioned to go after and see as the cause of their problems.
That "liberals" promote certain social issues that most Southerners find contrary to their values does not help the matter.
Finally, what made Joe Wilson's outburst so reprehensible imo was his target - the weakest social group in the US today - illegal immigrants - who do most of the heavy lifting in the US economy. What angered him and his followers was the possibility that this unofficial subclass might actually get a flu shot on the government dime. There is a growing anger in the South against this group, who essentially operate at the edge of our society. While they usually maintain those values most cherished by Southerners (religiosity, hard-work, family-orientation, frugality) they are at the same time perceived as not having to bare certain responsibilities. The most often heard complaint concerns auto accidents were the illegal (usually drunk in the story) is let go by the cops since he is illegal and shipped back home, the poor American "victim" having to shoulder all the damages. A version of this seemingly has become part of our national narrative.
The contradiction comes in when you point out to the "victims" that those same illegal workers are here due to "the system" that we have allowed to take root, keeping consumer prices low and gutting out worker benefits, that is their condition is due to our own lack of responsibility . . .
Had Joe Wilson really wanted to do something about the problem of illegal workers, he could have sponsored legislation imposing heavy fines on for instance the poultry and pork industries for hiring undocumented workers . . . not much chance of that though, which in my book makes Joe a gutless coward: first for attacking the weakest and second by not taking responsibility for a glaring problem that he seemingly acknowledges. Other than that his outburst was just the latest example of what the radical right has been doing in regards to Democratic political leaders for some time.
If there is any real "racism" present in this whole sorry episode, it is the deliberate exclusion of a politically and legally-marginalized group which is then systematically exploited for economic purposes: what could be argued to be our new "slave class" . . . but that exclusion is not limited to the Joe Wilsons . . .
But then any Democrat should know that.