Just as America was starting to pat itself on the back for coming a long way on race issues, America is closer to having an honest conversation about race than ever before. Some have cautioned against using the "racism card" to describe the vitriol that Republicans the Birthers and the Schoolers have slung toward President Obama. Yet, during this season of disrespect toward the President, we have seen more than ideological disagreement. From a Congresswoman calling for a Great White Hope to save the Republican Party (isn't Michael Steele the leader of the Republican National Party) to parental hysteria about the President's back to school speech, people who are not used to having a black leader are finding tacit ways to revolt.
South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouted “you lie” at the president during his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night. Few would doubt this was a sign of disrespect that most Americans would find objectionable. But beyond Wilson's callous disdain for the office of President, it is important to understand the racial connotations involved, and the climate that gave rise to them.
Contemporary racism is not largely about lynching or legalized segregation. Rather, we must be reflective about the myriad ways in which we are tacitly socialized to believe stereotypes about persons of color. Those beliefs reside in our subconscious and affect our attitudes and behaviors in ways that we often do not recognize. All Americans who are attentive to our potential for prejudice have been in situations where we “catch” ourselves with a racially insensitive thought that surprises us. Other times, those thoughts drive our actions without our knowledge. If we only define “racism” as overt bigotry, we ignore the most important elements of a system that continues to perpetuate it.
I am not saying Joe Wilson is a bigot, 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 deeply held negative predispositions about African Americans.
For at least two years, his political opponents (including Democratic opponents during the primary) have attempted to portray Barack Obama as “not one of us.” He has been, at various times, referred to as communist, elitist, corrupt, a terrorist sympathizer, foreign, fascist and even racist. In short, he is everything that we believe America is not. He is not “one of us.” He is “other.”
It is no surprise, then, that some parents felt it dangerous to let this stranger talk to their children on Tuesday, and it is no surprise that at least one member of Congress believed that it was appropriate to hurl an insult at him during a formal address. Keeping in mind that there is a small but vocal group of Americans and conservative leaders who continue to perpetuate the story that Obama is not a legitimate president because of his birth status, perhaps we should not be surprised that this president, then, does not command even the most minimal level of respect from some of his elected political opponents.
By and large, Americans go out of their way to excuse such behavior as being impolite and not at all related to race. If one believes that the threshold of what is to be considered to be “racist” is that an epithet must be hurled (e.g., if Wilson would have yelled, “You lying nigger!”), it is comfortable to believe that in a “post-racial” nation, such behavior is divorced from the nation's rich history of oppression and White supremacy.
Attacks on President Obama are not, in and of themselves, racist. They might be made without racist intent; they can even be made without racist effect if they do not find greater results because of ingrained stereotypes about African Americans. Criticizing the president for being willing to push for a clean energy bill, for example, is likely to be devoid of racial effects. However, arguing that he is lying when the evidence contradicts you, is corrupt when there is no reason to believe so, or has friends who are criminal when he does not does have a racist effect because it is easier for us to believe such claims about a black man.
Some of the folks who make racist appeals may be aware that they are doing so, but others very well may not. Irrespective of intent we must be aware that a context of “otherness” has been established around this president that set the stage for him to be treated differently than other presidents.