Rudy Ruiz: Veins throbbing, skin flushed red, finger pointed in judgment, Rep. Joe Wilson flashed his true colors. Publicly calling our president a liar, his actions exposed the nexus of opposition to both health care and immigration reform as a force motivated by fear, anger and hatred.
Is it more than coincidence that what sparked a congressman to yell at a black president were his feelings about brown immigrants?
The evidence is circumstantial, but the same might have once been said about the tip of the iceberg that sank the Titanic.
In the midst of President Barack Obama’s speech to Congress on health care reform, after the president denied that legislation would provide free coverage for illegal immigrants, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted disruptively, “You lie!”
Is it ironic or predictable that such anti-immigrant sentiment would spew forth from a representative of the state boasting the country’s fastest growing Hispanic population? Either way, it speaks volumes about what it’s like to be Latino right now, legal or not.
Funny that Wilson is from the Old South, land of the stereotypical “southern gentleman.” Unfortunately, he chose to embody a less favorable stereotype, one substantiated by his membership in what MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann described as “a radicalized, insurrection-glorifying group, accused of harboring white supremacists, called ‘Sons Of Confederate Veterans.’”
I wonder if he’d rudely heckle a white president? I wonder if he’d be so concerned about immigrants benefiting from health care reform if those immigrants weren’t changing the complexion of South Carolina?
I ask because if the health care debate has become heated to the point of hostility, what lies ahead for the immigration debate, given its obvious racial and ethnic overtones?
Wilson’s explosion foreshadows the combustible nature of our nation’s ongoing culture war. He and his ilk don’t want to pay for health care for those who can’t afford it, nor for illegal immigrants not paying taxes. Really, they just don’t want immigrants, period. They won’t admit the real reasons behind their stance because they know racist sentiment is political suicide. They’ll try to claim justification in the rule of law, but in moments like Wilson’s accusation, their true motivations are revealed.
Veins throbbing, skin flushed red, finger pointed in judgment, Wilson flashed his true colors. Publicly calling our president a liar, his actions exposed the nexus of opposition to both health care and immigration reform as a force motivated by fear, anger and hatred. His finger was really aimed squarely at people of color, who comprise nearly all of the immigrants in question and a disproportionate segment of the uninsured, not to mention those swept up in the current, including our president.
I can speak to this first-hand because when I’ve advocated for immigration reform, I’ve received comments like: “You’re lucky we let you stay in the country.”
Well, I should hope so since I was born and raised here and am an American citizen. However, the feedback illustrates the current I’m talking about. Anti-immigrant fervor fosters a general anti-Latino climate because beneath the surface lurks the same fear of cultural change. Tragically, it all swirls with the potential for a continuing rise in menacing hate crimes.
Wondering how Wilson’s hateful outburst played in South Carolina, I reviewed press coverage in his district, finding a mixture of surprise, disappointment and pride. Most disturbing was the pride.
One Wilson constituent, sitting among patrons at a diner near Columbia, told the Associated Press: “He’s the only one who has guts in that whole place. He’ll get re-elected in a landslide.”
If so, I’ll understand why the Southern Poverty Law Center ranks South Carolina third among its Top 5 Hot Spots for Hate Groups. At least 45 such organizations exist in Wilson’s state.
In his mea culpa, Wilson confessed: “I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the president’s remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill.”
But the apology doesn’t mean that “emotions” like Wilson’s won’t resurface. In fact, if the subsequent increase in contributions to Wilson’s campaign is any indication, the congressman is backed by many like-minded supporters. We must keep a keen eye on Wilson and his allies, because the waves he has made are a sign of dangerous undercurrents threatening to drown civil, honest and safe discourse in America.
We cannot tolerate rage that threatens civil discourse and public safety over national debate.
We must aggressively ascertain and expose the true motivations of immigration opponents so we can respond with a corresponding moral force that lives up to our ideals as a people.
We should be aware that anti-immigrant sentiment leads to anti-Latino sentiment as many fail to distinguish between Latinos born and raised here, legal immigrants, and those here illegally.
We must stop negative emotions from fanning fires of hate that could unleash more heinous crimes.
While the White House graciously accepted Wilson’s apology, the damage is done with the hate-mongers in our society, who are emboldened by reckless leaders like the congressman from South Carolina.
I believe in forgiveness, but not in forgetting -- or ignoring -- what lurks beneath the waters that lie ahead.
Rudy Ruiz is co-founder and president of Interlex, an advocacy marketing agency based in San Antonio, Texas. He also founded RedBrownandBlue.com, a Web site featuring multicultural political commentary, hosts a nationally syndicated Spanish-language radio show; and wrote a guide to success for immigrants ("¡Adelante!" published by Random House).