The race debate is bigger than a handful of Conservatives
President Obama has long suggested that he would like to move beyond race. The question now is whether the country will let him.
He woke up on Wednesday to a rapidly intensifying debate about how his race factors into the broader discussion of civility in politics, a question prompted in part by former President Jimmy Carter’s assertion Tuesday that racism was behind a Republican lawmaker’s outburst against Mr. Obama last week as the president addressed a joint session of Congress.
There is a prevalent misconception that racism is a self-contained problem. The myth goes like this: unless a hooded clansman is burning a cross on an African American family’s lawn, the United States is not dealing with traditional racism. Our country has transcended race, since the election of President Obama, this myth says. Furthermore, race is only a relevant factor when something overtly hostile happens to our leader, who happens to be black (not that any of us notice, since we have transcended the problem of racism). The myth leaves no room for discussions of institutionalized racism, or the acceptance that race and racism are always in the room with us, and not just when President Obama delivers nuanced, thoughtful speeches about them.
Aside from the obvious targets of a Joe Wilson or Rush Limbaugh, the problem of racism infests every facet of the American experience, including the ongoing health care debate, though few politicians and journalists seem to realize racism is bigger than a few of Glenn Beck’s disciples shouting something about Obama being Kenyan. “Race issue lingers over health care debate,” an AP headline declares, but what it fails to mention is that the health care debate is also a race debate, and the racism issue does not belong exclusively to the province of zaftig, paranoid white Conservatives, flawed reasoning that comforts many liberals.
Another Reuters headline reads, “Healthcare, anger, and race,” presenting the three nouns as if they are separate, autonomous entities. Such compartmentalization seems to suggest we can only talk about one issue (healthcare, anger, or race) at a time. We’re either chatting about Obama’s plans for health care reform, or we’re snickering about those crazy birthers, but we’re never talking about the same thing. However, in reality, the broken healthcare system and anger are subsidiaries of racism, and the three share a deeply interconnected relationship.
According to a study by researchers at Dartmouth, race and place of residence have a huge impact on the kind of medical treatment a patient receives. For example, blacks with diabetes or vascular disease are nearly five times more likely than whites to have a leg amputated. The widest racial gaps in mammogram rates within a state were in California and Illinois with a difference of 12 percentage points between the white rate and the black rate. The country’s lowest rate for blacks — 48 percent in California — was 24 percentage points below the highest rate — 72 percent in Massachusetts. In all but two states, black diabetics were less likely than whites to receive annual hemoglobin testing. But blacks in Colorado (66 percent) were far less likely to be screened than those in Massachusetts (88 percent).
Statistics released by Advocates for Children and Youth, an independent statewide nonprofit organization, show that the infant mortality rate is 8 deaths per 1,000 births in Maryland, with African American babies dying at a 2.5 times higher rate than white babies. African Americans’ life expectancy is six years shorter than whites at birth, two years shorter at age 65, and numerous studies document the relatively poor health and health outcomes of African Americans, reflecting a long history of economic deprivation and barriers to health care.
Race has infrequently been addressed in this fashion possibly because it removes racism from the territory of crazy, right-wing protesters and delivers the blame to larger institutions like the private health care industry, and the United States government at large. It’s one thing to make fun of Rush Limbaugh’s ignorance, it’s another thing to ask multi-billion dollar industries to change their racist practices, or accuse the entire government of being rotten at the foundation. Such accusations would earn a dissenter the title of “race-baiter,” or one who “plays the race card.” These kinds of platitudes are usually euphemisms for “You’re making me uncomfortable. Don’t rile up the black folk. Shut up.”
As much as white Americans hate to admit it, we are always talking about race, even when we’re not poking fun at Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. Race and racism will play a huge roll in the health care reform debate, and not just when Joe Wilson is the topic of discussion. Rep. Donna Edwards has said that proposed legislation overhauling health care would likely address racial disparities in education and health among children. Let’s hope so. At least then the discussion of race and racism may reap some productive rewards instead of more empty chatter about Joe Wilson’s motives.