Hanna, I see what you’re saying about how Joe Wilson is in the mainstream of South Carolina white culture , but that doesn’t strike me as a reason to shy away from drawing the conclusion that he’s a racist. If anything, that just seems to be more evidence that he is a racist. We are talking about the people who gleefully elected Strom Thurmond to office repeatedly. Whether we like to admit this about our fellow Americans or not, there are large parts of the country where the mainstream white culture is overtly racist. As a white person living in a red state, I’m sick of pretending that this doesn’t create plenty of occasions where conservatives will say the most hair-curling racist things when they think they’re out of the earshot of anyone that will confront them on it.
And why would we doubt it? The white reaction to the civil rights movement didn’t happen in some other place and time. The violently angry white reaction happened within Joe Wilson’s memory, around the time of his adolescence in South Carolina. In fact, according to his biography , he immersed himself in the Republican party at just the point in time that pro-segregation Southern Democrats were switching parties. With Google searching, all the information I could find on when exactly Wilson worked for Strom Thurmond was unsurprisingly and conveniently hazy, but it seems that it had to have been in the mid-’60s, right after Thurmond switched party affliations as a protest against racial equality, and just a few years after Thurmond held the longest filibuster in history to halt civil rights legislation.
It’s not impossible that political views reverse within a person’s lifetime, but despite our highest hopes for ourselves, it’s rare. It’s believeable that Robert Byrd turned around on race, because he actually made an effort to fix the damage done by racism. But for most racists, what’s happened is they’ve decided they’re victimized by the “P.C.” culture that shames them for overt bigotry, and so they get a lot of pleasure out of constructing a set of code words and signals to demonstrate allegiance under oppression, fancying themselves something closer to the anti-Nazi Resistance than to the hose-turning, screaming segregationists they were just a generation ago. It’s an absurd fantasy, but one that Wilson is feeding by showing one face to a national audience and another to his base.
The only real reason to quit hammering Wilson is that it’s a distraction from policy issues, and it feeds the white racist victim complex. But there’s a real danger in setting the bar so high on what we call “racism” that associations, symbols, and behavior aren’t enough proof to at least suggest that’s the most likely explanation. That functionally erases racism as something that it’s polite to acknowledge, and the people who bear the burden of that silencing are the actual victims of racism, the non-white people who have to suffer the abuses and obstacles that racist attitudes cause. It shouldn’t be worse to call someone a racist-especially if the evidence has piled high and deep-than to be a racist.
Photograph of Joe Wilson by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.