“Did You Think ‘Wretched Refuse’ Was Just the Irish? Uh Uh!” [VIDEO]

By Julianne Hing Aug 13, 2009

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Larry Wilmore on The Daily Show two nights ago lays out the racial ridiculousness the healthcare debate is devolving into. It’s a funny bit to be sure, but the whole time I was watching this clip I kept shaking my head thinking, "If only! Wouldn’t it be nice if the tables were turned and progressives and people of color really had this much power to wield!" I wanted to reach out to that poor woman sobbing for the America she misses to tell her: Lady, Don’t you worry. People of color are getting exploited and getting unequal treatment everywhere! The America you long for is still here! Sometimes it seems the only rational response (short of tearing my hair out) is to throw up my hands and laugh. Oh, America! You can be real ignorant, you big hulking behemoth of a country! But Kai Wright, writing for The Root, helps make sense of what’s happening right now.

If ever there was a “teachable moment” about race in modern America, now is it. With the birthers and the reparations conspiracy theories and the Nazi imagery at health care meetings, someone’s gotta explain why all these white folks are wilding out. We need an articulate, impassioned race man to clarify things.

Kai takes us down memory lane with Democratic senator Jim Webb taking on white working class folks’ fears and frustrations to, as he puts it, "pursue narrow financial and political gain by exploiting the justified anxieties of working-class whites." But the whole strategy is quite old, and I appreciated Kai putting all this contemporary craziness into a historical context.

Most commentators try to make sense of it by harking back to Nixon and the GOP’s “Southern strategy,” when it consolidated regional power by stoking reactionary fear of the civil rights movement. That’s true as far as it goes. But years earlier Martin Luther King described it more broadly. “The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” he explained, summing up the region’s history in a sentence. “And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man.”

Ain’t that the truth.