Elephant in the room: Race also present in rebuke of Wilson

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 15, 2009 

WASHINGTON — In their effort to admonish Rep. Joe Wilson, both white and black lawmakers in the House of Representatives voiced deep concern over a string of what they think are racially motivated attacks on the nation's first black president.

"There's no question that if you look at some of the actions and comments being made, there's a fringe element that has staked out a racial position towards African-Americans that never has been open for public display" until now, said Rep. Henry Johnson, D-Ga., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Wilson "didn't help the cause of diversity and balance with his remarks."

The 240 to 179 vote Tuesday, largely along party lines, formally reprimanded Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, for shouting "You lie!" to President Barack Obama during his address last week to a joint session of Congress.

Wilson and the House GOP leadership protested, saying the measure was a diversionary tactic designed to deflect attention from the health care debate.

"It's clear to the American people that there are far more important issues facing the nation," Wilson said in his defense.

However, some Black Caucus members said that Wilson's outburst is but the latest in a long string of ugly events rooted in racism, such as last week's flap over Obama addressing the nation's schoolchildren, protesters showing up outside Obama events carrying licensed firearms, and "birthers" questioning Obama's citizenship. Black Caucus members say such incidents are designed to disrespect the office of the president now that a black man holds it.

"I don't think that this would have happened" to a white president, said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., a black caucus member. Wilson "wouldn't have done that to (former President George W.) Bush or any of the 43 presidents like that."

The push, experts said, reflects growing anger in the black community over how Obama is being attacked with venomous and false charges that he's a socialist, born in Kenya, a Muslim, and somehow un-American.

"It feels very O.J-ish," said Kathryn Russell-Brown, the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida, referring to the racial divide in public opinion over the guilt or innocence of former football star O.J. Simpson for the 1994 murder of his white wife. Surveys found that white majorities thought Simpson guilty was and blacks didn't. Simpson was acquitted in 1995. "It's deja vu all over again. People have staked out their ground: 'It's about race; no it's not about race.'"

Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., also black, said that the racial undercurrent against Obama has been the least discussed aspect of his presidency.

Scott said he experienced some of the racial vitriol aimed at Obama when someone painted a swastika on his Smyrna, Ga., office following a contentious town hall meeting on health care last month.

One letter sent to his office addressed him as "Nigga David Scott."

"The folks are not going to stand for socialized medicine even though negro's (sic) refuse to stand on their own two feet," another letter read.

Georgia's Johnson said that Wilson's outburst, and the House Republican leadership's response to it, gives a wink and a nod to racist behavior and that Tuesday's resolution was needed to restore civility.

"The other party has been stoking the flames of disrespect among the people," Johnson said, adding: "I guess we'll have people putting on white hoods and uniforms."

Not every Democrat, however, was anxious to punish Wilson or viewed his outburst through the prism of race. Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., said Wilson's shout at Obama reflected the passion of the current political debate that's going on in the country.

"Part of this is a fundamental debate about the role of government, and their people are really loud," said Edwards, a Black Caucus member who added that Wilson needed to be disciplined nonetheless. "This is about how we go forward as a republic and as an institution. This (behavior) cannot be allowed without any sanction."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., wondered whether going after Wilson was worth the House's time.

"I think he should man-up, but I'm not sure we should push him," she said.

Tuesday's vote marked a reversal for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who initially indicated that the Wilson matter was over after he apologized to Obama. After being pressed by black lawmakers, however, especially House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, Democrats proceeded with the resolution.

The resolution, presented by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., a veteran white lawmaker, and Clyburn, said that Wilson's actions violated the House's general code of conduct that a lawmaker "shall conduct himself at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House of Representatives."

The vote was a symbolic gesture that carries no specific punishment. Twelve Democrats voted against the resolution, seven Republicans voted for it, and five Democrats voted present.

Republican speakers defended Wilson as a former military family man, with sons who've served in Iraq, who may have made an ill-timed outburst, but apologized for it and ultimately provoked useful debate on the health care legislation.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the procedure was a witch-hunt and unnecessary because Wilson had already apologized to Obama, and the president had accepted.

"There's been behavior that's gone on around here that's been far more serious than this, that didn't bring a resolution to the floor," Boehner said, suggesting "we could be doing this every day of the week."

Clyburn maintained, however, that the resolution was about keeping the order and decorum that's governed Congress for centuries.

"This hall is the most prominent classroom in this great country, and all us are teachers," he said. "We are bound by duty and the offices we hold to conduct ourselves as such . . . Silence is consent. We cannot be silent in this matter. We do not consent to the conduct of Mr. Wilson."

Democrats voting no: Mike Arcuri (NY), Bill Delahunt (Mass.), Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.), Maurice Hinchey (NY), Paul Hodes (NH), Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), Daniel Maffei (NY), Eric Massa (NY), Jim McDermott (Wash.), Gwen Moore (Wisc.), Gene Taylor (Miss.), Harry Teague (NM).

Democrats voting present: Eliot Engel (NY), Bill Foster (Ill.), Barney Frank (Mass.), Carol Shea-Porter (NH), Ike Skelton (Mo.)

Republicans voting yes:

Joseph Cao (La.), Jo Ann Emerson (Mo.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Bob Inglis (SC), Walter Jones (NC), Thomas Petri (Wisc.), Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.).

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