Inside the Mind of Joe Wilson

Richard Benjamin, Salon, September 11, 2009

When he called the president a liar, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., apparently “forgot” he wasn’t at one of those rowdy town halls.

Besides the show of disrespect, and the fact that he was wrong, the legislator’s comments expose a virulent racism and paranoia against undocumented workers. As we enter Hispanic Heritage Month, America would do well to examine the legislator’s political paranoia instead of rehashing his churlish, attention-seeking outburst. The legislator’s behavior is uncommon, but his attitude is not.

As members of Congress discussed healthcare reform with their constituents over the recent recess, many faced repeated, heated charges that the reform would stick “American taxpayers”–as if undocumented workers don’t pay consumption taxes!–with the healthcare bills of illegal immigrants. If the swine flu weren’t enough to stigmatize Latino immigrants, now there’s the healthcare debate.

How did racism and xenophobia become so deeply enmeshed in this debate?

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Race–that is, 30 years of government-supported desegregation and the sharp increase of brown immigration–is not incidental to the public’s cynicism, disconnection and unwillingness to support the public sector, meaning the goods, services and places that belong to “we the people.” That’s especially true when we talk about healthcare.

Eduardo Porter, a financial journalist and editorial board member of the New York Times, has documented how “racial and ethnic diversity undermine support for public investment in social welfare. For all the appeal of America’s melting pot, the country’s diverse ethnic mix is one main reason for entrenched opposition to public spending on the public good.”

Moreover, two Harvard economists have correlated diversity with public spending in Western Europe and the United States. The economists demonstrated that half the social-spending gap between the two areas was due to the United States’ more varied racial and ethnic mix. (The other half was due largely to the stronger left-wing parties in Western Europe.)

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Put bluntly, it is not a coincidence that America’s love affair with all-things private–gated communities, private roads, private parks, private schools, private playgrounds, private hospitals–heated up during the 1950s as the federal government sought to integrate the nation.

As the U.S. government began helping everyday Americans at unprecedented levels from FDR’s New Deal on, immigration has become all the more contentious. Immigration broils as an issue precisely as this nation faces budget deficits and potential cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, the state university systems and so on. {snip}

{snip} As the president and America debate a large, necessary overhaul of the public sector, expect more xenophobic outbursts like Wilson’s.

Tea baggers rail against social programs that are allegedly squandered on “illegal aliens.” The Birther movement rails against a supposedly Muslim president. Healthcare reform town halls combust over “government dependence.” Republicans like Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., push a boycott of the 2010 Census, fretting that immigrants and minorities will be overcounted.

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We must understand Wilson’s outburst by exposing its past and future context–including what I call “The White People Deadline,” 2042. And then we must move the healthcare debate forward.

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