MinnPost asked Minnesota’s congressional delegation for their thoughts on the question of whether recent criticism of President Obama and his policies is based on race. We will put up the members’ comments as we receive them.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said that although he has heard and seen racially tinged criticism against President Obama, “there has been ugly stuff thrown at presidents in the past.”
“There have been incredibly hateful things that other Democratic presidents have had to face that were not on the basis of policy. That were personal,” Ellison said.
“I think they would have attacked Hillary [Rodham Clinton],” Ellison said. “I think they would attack any guy who would come to the presidency and try to push through health care.”
Still, Ellison said that he thought some of the developments at recent town hall meetings, including people carrying guns, making threats and occasionally resorting to violence, was new.
“But does it have a racial nature?” Ellison asked. “Obviously, for some people it does. But, for many people it doesn’t.
“We don’t want to over-generalize here. Not everybody who criticizes Obama does it because he is black. I have criticized Obama,” said Ellison, who is African American.
“But some of the criticism does seem to be informed by racial hatred. Or, not even hatred, but a sense that he just shouldn’t be in leadership.
“A lot of times when we talk about race in America, we make the mistake of thinking that it is all about like and dislike, hate or not hate… But it is more complicated. Like, I don’t have problems with you having dark skin, but I just want you to be in a servant role.”
On the topic of Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, Ellison said he was left with some questions about the congressman’s outburst during Obama’s speech after more information came out about Wilson’s background.
“In the beginning of it, I didn’t think that the Joe Wilson comment was necessarily racist. I thought it was ignorant and annoying,” Ellison said. “But then when I found out that he denounced Strom Thurmond’s black daughter when she came out of her silence and he is a supporter of the rebel flag… Now that some things are coming out of the woodwork, I am kind of looking at Joe differently.”
At the same time, Ellison said that despite pockets of “stubbornness.” the Obama presidency represents a major step forward in race relations in the United States.
“I also like to talk about the racial triumphs of the Obama presidency,” Ellison said. “Most of his voters were white.”
“I don’t want the story of racism to eclipse the reality of November 5, 2008,” said Ellison. “An overwhelming majority of Americans voted for Obama. His first win was in Iowa. It is possible to allow certain discreet events to eclipse the stark reality that America has made progress.”
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., issued the following statement:
“I can’t pretend to know the motivations of the president’s critics. I believe the overwhelming majority of Americans are proud of our President, and even if they don’t agree with his policies, are proud of our country for overcoming such an enormous racial hurdle with his election. I think President Obama has done a commendable job of navigating the waters on this sensitive issue. He addressed it during the campaign in an incredibly insightful way that I’d never heard from any other office holder or politician. Right now, he’s keeping the focus on the challenges we’re facing as a nation: how to reform our broken health care system and make this economy work for everyone.”
Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., issued the following statement:
“It’s not an issue that I have time to dwell on, there is too much work to do. Right now we are trying to make sure that every American has access to health care and we’re working on a transportation bill that will invest in our roads and bridges for the next six years. President Obama is proposing sweeping of the financial sector so we don’t see another collapse in the banking industry. That is what I am staying focused on.”
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., issued the following statement:
“It would be naïve to think bigots and racists don’t exist – they are calling Congressional offices and being mobilized to defeat the policies I am fighting to enact. There are legitimate policy differences in health care, immigration and the economy that should be constructively debated. We need to fix these problems, not be diverted by an extremist fringe.”
Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.