I am a sixth generation Texan. Born into a family that was steeped in the Southern tradition of bigotry and faith, a very strange combination. Love God, but not your fellow man.
I was saved from that narrow minded racial hatred by a mother who threw off the beliefs of her childhood and a Yankee grandmother who saw everyone as a friend. I have come home as a child to play with a Navajo boy whose mother my mother befriended. I have come home to a houseful of Buddhists cooking on our stove because theirs had quit and my grandmother opened our kitchen to them. (The ashram was across the street.) I have come home to find the welfare mother next door being taught to cook by my grandmother. I have come home to be invited to the birth of our next door neighbor's child in their front bedroom.
From my mother and my grandmother, I learned that everyone is a neighbor and to follow Christ's command to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. I am so grateful for that lesson. That does not mean I like everyone. No race has a corner on good or evil. I know I can encounter saints or devils in any color.
Wednesday evening, I watched President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress. When he was interrupted by a rude outburst, I caught the Southern accent. I knew that Southern bigotry had struck again.
Later, the press announced the name of the Southerner, Joe Wilson. I do not know much about this man except that he is a Congressman and comes from South Carolina. I doubt that he is an overt racist. I doubt that he believes he has any problem with race. Yet, he chose to interrupt a speech of the first black President of the United States. I believe that he is heir to the deep racial bigotry that still eats at the heart of the South. Hidden now, but perhaps more virulent.
Racism still lingers just below the surface of every day interactions between Southerners. This racism is not conscious, but ingrained, characterized by racial jokes and casual slurs. The subtle assumption from the past that blacks are not capable of intellectual activity still lingers. A black quarterback at the University of Texas led to whispers and suggestions that he had a lot of white in him. This racism rises from the great need of human beings to have someone to look down on, someone to feel superior to, someone to make their condition seem less barren.
In the South, poor whites were duped into hating blacks by a white ruling class that played the need for superiority for all it was worth. This racism had the desired result. Poor whites voted with rich whites instead of with poor blacks. In many cases, poor whites voted against their own interests rather than share a common cause with blacks.
The Republicans use this racial tactic today. Health care is a perfect example. Here illegal immigrants become the target of hatred and fear. Many whites would rather have health care reform defeated than chance that some illegal immigrant would game the system and receive medical care. They would continue a system that limits access to health insurance (preexisting condition means denial of insurance), limits payments (maximum amount of payments capped), and denies medical treatment on technicalities.
What would Jesus say to us about the sick child of an illegal immigrant? Let them die? Or heal them? Who is our neighbor?
There is an amazing mentality even among well educated Southerners. I have had graduate degreed friends tell me that slavery was not that bad, that as a whole the system was good for blacks. They will concede to individual cases of extreme cruelty and excess, but tell you on the whole slaves were well taken care of and had little worries because food and shelter were provided. Of course, when I ask if they would like to be a slave, the answer is no. I wonder what Joe Wilson thinks about slavery?
Many Southerners are ready to refight the Civil War. Not militarily, but politically. Republicans cling to the issues that divided the country, race and wealth. Then race concerned the civil rights of blacks and wealth the riches derived from black labor. Now, race deals with denying access to upward mobility for minorities so that wealth can be accumulated from the fruits of their low wage work. Again, illegal immigrants show the hypocrisy. Deny illegals benefits, but live in the houses they build for less than minimum wage or eat at a restaurant whose prices are low because the kitchen staff consists of illegal immigrants paid a pittance.
When southern Republicans are afraid of losing an election, they play the race card. Not overtly, but with great skill. Just as in the days after Reconstruction, they scare poor whites with the image of their black or brown neighbors as the other, as different, as someone who wishes to take from them, as someone who has suspect values and a desire for a different America. The image of President Obama as a foreigner is an example of this gambit.
Southern Republicans will make outrageous statements to rally those that fear the federal government. Governor Perry stated that Texas should secede from the United States because the federal government was taking over everything. People believe such outrageous statements because for years they have been fed the idea that centralized help is evil. Only a state is fit to look after its citizens.
Too many Southerners live in world created not by fact, but by their desires, desires articulated by right wing commentators, politicians and ministers. They live in a world that does not exist, but is real to them. In their world, President Obama is part of a Muslim plot to destroy the United States. His health plan is just another step in Muslim plan to control everyone in the United States. Their world makes them very afraid. Their fear makes them vulnerable to the demagogues of the right. Their fear may truly threaten this nation.
We must remember the angels message at the coming of Christ: "Fear not."