Mike Klein Online

“You Lie!” Ignites National Shout Out

Atlanta Mike Pix_Press_Club_189_-_Version_2My mother used to constantly admonish me, “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone then don’t say anything at all.”  Apparently my mother never met Joe Wilson.

Wilson is the white South Carolina Republican congressman and current poster boy for disrespect who shouted “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s recent health care policy address to Congress.  Politicians from both parties roundly booed the red-faced Congressman who later apologized to Obama.  The President accepted the apology.

Those two short words … “You lie!” … ignited a national shout out over whether racism is the real seed behind criticism of Obama initiatives.  Black – white is back on the national stage.  There are plenty of lighting rods – political, media and former presidential.   Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity on FOX News and Rush Limbaugh on radio are lightning rods for left and right, black and white.

New York Times white liberal columnist Maureen Dowd fueled the controversy when she wrote that Wilson meant,  “You lie boy!”  Georgia black Congressman Hank Johnson did not help the cause of diversity and tolerance when he told cameras, “I guess we’ll probably have folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again and riding through the countryside intimidating people.”    Jimmy Carter had plenty to contribute; more on that later.

Nine months after the Barack Obama inauguration, we are now fully engaged in a new civil rights conversation that may become one standard by which historians eventually judge the Obama presidency.  While he tries to reinvent government and save the climate, Obama cannot afford to underestimate the importance of this new national conversation.  The concern here is Obama might completely miss the point while functioning as White House chief marketing officer, speech maker and interview giver.

Doug Shipman is executive director of the Atlanta-based Center for Civil and Human Rights.  He describes racial conversations as ones that involve race or ethnicity where they play a crucial aspect.  Shipman says this differs significantly from “racism” or “racist” conversations that involve inequality or even hatred.  “At the moment we’re probably having a lot of the former and a little of the latter and not defining them very well,” Shipman said.

Shipman noted whites will soon become a national plurality, no longer the majority.  Demographic change will increase pressure to define what “We” means in American society.   “This is the beginning of an ongoing conversation about American identity which will likely include language, religion, immigration, race / ethnicity, gender and sexuality,” Shipman said.   “We need to find ways to lower the personalization and intensity of the dialogue in order to find our collective way.”

Former President Jimmy Carter created significant national buzz when he told NBC Nightly News that “an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he is African American.”

Carter continued, “Many white people, not just in the South but around the country, (believe) that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.  It’s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply.”

Black entertainer Bill Cosby agrees with Carter.  Black Republican Party national chairman Michael Steele does not.  “President Carter is flat out wrong,” Steele said.  “This isn’t about race.  It is about policy.”  Steele also described the Johnson remarks as “an ignorant statement.”

Carter is correct when he states some whites focus only on Obama being black.  But the former president seems unable to recognize some white Americans who disagree with Obama policies fear being able to ask legitimate questions without being labeled racists.  Even conversation among colleagues is muted.

Hank Klibanoff is the Pulitzer Prize winning co-author of “The Race Beat,” an examination of the role media played during the 1960’s civil rights movement.  He recommends some vocal restraint.

“There’s never a bad time for leaders in the storm of a stressful national debate to step out of the spotlight, sit in a corner and deeply and openly assess their behavior, their words and even more so the roots of their motives and beliefs,” Klibanoff said.  “No one should be surprised to find small or large racial influences on all of that, and once we find it we ought to think carefully about whether we want to reveal our biases to the world, or work quietly on them.”

The loudest voices from all sides – media, politicians and others – are making it extremely hard to concentrate on health care, how many new U.S. troops should be sent into Afghanistan and whatever you think about the new administration decision to not deploy a U.S. defensive missile shield into Poland and the Czech Republic.  Those are critical national issues, along with how to fund Social Security, reorganize Wall Street, save the Post Office, manage our trade problems with China, keep icecaps from melting and whatever else comes up.

Klibanoff gets nearly the final word.  “Some of us reveal our closed minds with open mouths.  I am deeply worried about the demagogues out there who will say anything to stir a crowd, stoke anger and capitalize on fears.  I think of the George Eliot remark that went something like this:  Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, refrains from giving evidence of the fact in words.”

We have a new national conversation.  We owe it to ourselves to conduct it with dignity.

Posted Friday September 18

September 18, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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