Maybe it was inevitable.
In a confusing mess of a crisis like the government shutdown, everybody is rushing to insist that each new development proves their favorite point. If you think the Tea Party is taking over Congress, here’s proof. If in your worldview, Barack Obama would rather negotiate with Iran than Republicans, here’s proof. Convinced that Washington is totally broken? Miss the days when leaders like Reagan and Tip O’Neil found common ground? Look no further then these last few days for ample evidence.
You name it, these joyless days of our political life spill over with enough hyperbole, careless statements and blame to fuel any argument and buttress every assumption.
But of all the charges and counter-charges, the accusation that racism is driving the government shutdown and opposition to Obamacare seems the most far-fetched. As well as the most inflammatory and insulting. It’s a toxic combination.
From the very beginning of his candidacy, it has always been possible, and sometimes accurate, to say that race has motivated opposition to Barack Obama. There was evidenced not only by the obvious racism of crude signs at anti-Obama rallies but the subtler framing of the discussion by his opponents in the Democratic primary.
Joe Biden referred to Barack Obama in 2007 as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean,” a shockingly racist refrain. Hillary Clinton began her campaign in 2007 running like Queen Elizabeth, above the fray, but by the end sounded more like Lurleen Wallace, making explicit appeals to white voters, challenging Obama’s electability based on race. “Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again,” she crowed in May 2008.
Many joined Clinton in predicting an African American could not win the Presidency. But Barack Obama was elected president twice, the first Democrat to win a majority of the vote in two elections since Roosevelt. It’s difficult to imagine a more indisputable proof of national acceptance and affirmation.
To say that opposition to Obamacare is driven by race is as insulting as asserting that African Americans opposed to Hillary and Bill Clinton’s health plan in 1993 did so because the Clintons were white. While there were plenty of African Americans who supported a single-payer plan and didn’t think the Clinton plan went far enough, it would have been extraordinarily deeming to deny them the opportunity of a difference of opinion based on critical thought, not race.
But today there is a group of sane and intelligent voices on the left who seem determined to formulate all opposition to Obamacare and indeed Barack Obama as race based. One has to wonder if those who do so grasp how insulting and demeaning it is to the president.
If you really believe that Barack Obama can’t be accepted as a president because he’s African American, then you’ve effectively conceded the very premise of the Obama presidency. It was Barack Obama who challenged Americans “to bend the arc of history” and presented himself as a post-racial candidate. To believe a large portion of Americans will never accept him because of race is to believe he has failed at both efforts.
Yet asserting that Obama is first and foremost an African American President more than an American president is exactly the curious path some of his most fervent supporters have taken in the current crisis. Joan Walsh, who wrote an interesting book on race, What’s the Matter With White People, took to Salon to argue that opposition to Obamacare is driven not just by race but by “miscegenation: He’s not just black, he’s the product of a black father and a white mother.”
“It would be difficult to exaggerate the role of racial resentment in the G.O.P. war on President Obama and his signature achievement, the ACA,” writes Kathleen Geier at the Washington Monthly. Her main proof point is the fact that “all but one state in the Deep South have refused the free money from the feds to expand Medicaid.”
The problem with that argument is that just over half the states—26—have so far refused to expand Medicaid. This group includes New Hampshire, Maine and Alaska, three of the whitest states in the country and hardly the heartbeat of a new Confederacy. In part, these are states with a deep appreciation that there is no “free” federal money, there’s only tax dollars And this “free” money is only guaranteed for three years and states are nervous about funding a vastly expanded Medicaid program after the three year period. Plus there is the realization that Medicaid is not a perfect plan.
Is it racist to say about Medicaid, “we can’t simply put more people into a broken system that doesn’t work”? If it were, that would make Barack Obama a racist, because that’s what he said in June of 2009. But he’s not, nor is acknowledging that Medicaid is fraught with problems and expanding Medicaid under Obamacare is a complicated question with profound consequences that each state must examine.
When you start calling 26 states racist for electing officials who share some of the same doubts about Medicare that Barack Obama has expressed, this goes beyond illogical to a sort of frothing hysteria. The brilliant writer Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish To Inform you that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, tweeted, “GOP has contrived to exclude most poor blacks & workers in America from health care thru States Rights. Murderous.” Then doubled down with, “I wasn't kidding when I said we need a Surgeon General's warning on the GOP - it is killing the poor – systematically.”
When someone like Gourevitch, who wrote a stunning book about the Rwanda massacre and understands the realities of “systematic” murder, is accusing the majority of the state governments of the United States of being guilty of the same, it seems obvious that something about this moment is driving the discussion to unfortunate extremes.
There are many reasons to regret ill-founded and casual accusations of racism while discussing differences of public policy. But surely the most damaging is that it reduces the power of highlighting true acts of hateful racism. If we are to say that 26 governors in America are motivated by racial prejudice for their doubts of expanding Medicaid, we are trivializing the real stain of racism.
In this moment when the language of appeasement, suicide bombers and hostage taking seems common place, is there much to be gained by calling the people of New Hampshire, with their Democratic governor, racist? Or the good people of Maine, who gave the country the Union hero of Gettysburg, Joshua Chamberlain? These are racist states? Please.
There is racism in this country. Far too much of it. And there’s a deep divide over Obamacare. But let’s don’t give aid and comfort to those who are truly racist by asserting they are like over half the governors in the country. They’re not and we know the difference.