Last week, a YouTube video of the Oklahoma House Majority Leader saying, "… might try to Jew me down on the price," made the rounds. I don't know what was more troubling: the Majority Leader's comfort in casually tossing out an anti-Semitic slur or the laughter in the room when he sarcastically apologized.
One reporter noted that there were no Jewish Oklahoma state legislators, implying that this comment would not have been uttered if there had been some. It should be noted that Oklahoma, while not awash in synagogues, does have 4,650 Jews, more than eight other states. A popular movie set in Oklahoma, Leaves of Grass, featured a Jewish orthodontist attending Shabbat services. So, I doubt that this reflects on the Majority Leader's personal experience--or lack thereof--with Jews or the absence of Jews in Oklahoma.
Something else is at play.
In the Texas State Legislature, a leading legislator talking about quick and fair payments to windstorm victims said, "don't nit-pick, don't try to Jew them down." He quickly added, "that's probably a bad term," and went on. No one laughed.
Why laughter in Oklahoma but not Texas? Is it because there is a higher percentage of Jews in Texas than Oklahoma, though both states have very low percentages (.1% compared to .6%)? Or is it because the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives is Jewish? Perhaps Texans are more polite than their neighbors to the North? Maybe it is because a member of the Texas Legislature was criticized in the press for saying he had gotten into politics to put Christian conservatives in office?
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Representative made a bigoted remark. It happened to be about us. It could have been about African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, women, or members of the LGBTQ community.
This happens in the Illinois State Legislature. It happens in the Idaho, Indiana, and Iowa Legislatures too.
State legislators across the United States do much of their work in the public spaces of committee hearings and floor debates. In the heat of the moment, in the glory of being in the limelight, legislators can forget that they are on the public stage. They act as though they are debating friends or the TV set. It is easy to slip and say something they wish they hadn't; something we wished they hadn't said.
Hours of debate in close quarters drag on and legislators fighting to make a point have been known to regress to taunts and insults. I remember a late night debate when one party appropriations leader described the other party's budget as having as much support as a Wonder bra. Upset women advocates surrounded him afterwards and called him out for his sexist remark.
Last week during the gun control debate, a new legislator, responding to yelling and screaming from a particularly strident gun rights colleague, said "we don't want someone like that carrying a concealed weapon." Bedlam erupted as stacks of paper were tossed in the air and a legislator threw a microphone down in disgust. Friends and foe took the new legislator to task for this perhaps uncivil but certainly not racist remark.
One danger of a bigoted remark is that it will be quickly picked up by the press and heard round the world. Look at what happened to the House Majority Leader in Oklahoma.
A more serious danger of a bigoted remark is that it poisons the trust among those working to pass good public policy. Being willing to compromise is essential in the political process. It is hard to engage if you are suspicious of the other person. I am willing to bet that the Texas Representative has had to work hard to rebuild his relationships with his Speaker, voters in his district, Jewish and otherwise, and his colleagues who thought him an honorable man.
What distinguishes Illinois, and perhaps Texas, from Oklahoma is that a bigoted remark would not be tolerated by the leaders or by the other legislators. Any legislator would be quickly told that civil discourse is essential to governing and that personal attacks, especially bigoted remarks are not good behavior.
And that makes all the difference.
Because in the end, it wasn't the remark in the Oklahoma State Legislature, as uncomfortable as it made me feel, that mattered most; it was the laughter.