WASHINGTON, Sept 16 – Republican US Congressman Joe Wilson faces notoriety and claims of racism after heckling President Barack Obama, but his past record features an affection for one ethnic group — Indian Americans.
The House of Representatives on Tuesday slapped an unprecedented reprimand on the South Carolina lawmaker, who sharply broke protocol last week by shouting "You lie!" as the president addressed a joint session of Congress.
The resolution was actively promoted by African-American lawmakers, some of whom argued that Wilson would not have shown such disrespect if Obama were white.
Wilson was widely described as a little-known but sometimes aggressive backbencher. His outburst was triggered by his opposition to allowing illegal immigrants to obtain public help for health care.
"When this broke, most people didn’t really know about Congressman Wilson. But the Indian-American community knows him pretty well," said Sanjay Puri, chairman of the US Indian Political Action Committee.
Wilson, who recounts positive experiences with South Asians as a child, was formerly co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans.
He co-sponsored a bill – approved in 2007 in a far quieter vote than Tuesday’s reprimand against him – that recognized the religious significance of the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali.
Wilson was also a strong advocate for a landmark accord spearheaded by former president George W. Bush that gave India access to civilian nuclear technology despite its refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Puri, the Indian-American activist, said that the white 62-year-old Southerner was a fixture at South Asia-related events in Washington.
"I’ve met him many, many times and he’s always been very positive and very outgoing and high-energy," he said.
"I’ve never seen anything like this," Puri said of Wilson’s outburst. "I was very surprised."
Wilson’s case — with his close ties to the South Asian community but friction with African-Americans over his outburst — may reflect the complicated racial politics in the contemporary South.
South Carolina, the first state to secede in the Civil War, still often has tense relations between whites and blacks but is home to a small but thriving Indian-American community that runs parts of the hospitality business.
Elsewhere in the South, Louisiana — where in 1991 a former member of the racist Ku Klux Klan received nearly 40 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial election — elected Indian-American Bobby Jindal as governor in 2007.
Wilson, speaking at a congressional hearing in June, said that his father traveled across the subcontinent during World War II as part of the "Flying Tigers," the volunteer US air force that defended China against imperial Japan.
"As I was growing up, he told me how entrepreneurial and capable the people of South Asia are. And it has come to fruition," Wilson said.
"And so when Indian Americans started buying hotels and motels in the communities that I represent, I became their attorney. I said I know who you are. And so it was a great relationship," he said.
In a 2003 interview with the newspaper India Abroad, Wilson remarked that he was born just 15 days before India’s independence from Britain.
"I found the country itself paralleled my life," he said.