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Sep. 24 2009 - 12:50 pm | 29 views | 0 recommendations | 14 comments

Obama Opposition (Mostly) Not About Race

Yet another symbol of the majesty of American ...

Image by permanently scatterbrained via Flickr

There a pretty simple reason it’s so hard to extricate the issue of Obama’s race from general opposition to Obama’s policies: A very large chunk of the people predisposed to oppose Obama’s policies are also racists.

Not a nice thing to say? I’m being unfair? I’m part of the liberal media conspiracy?

Believe what you want. But pay attention to the numbers. And see at the end how this basic demographic fact can be flipped on its head to create a statement Obama’s opponents would probably agree with. To the science

(the political science, anyway)

You may have seen this research, showing that racial resentment is strongly correlated with opposition to health-care reform. Basically, if you’re white and you don’t much like black people, you are more likely to oppose health-care reform; if you’re white and you don’t have a problem with black people, you’re much more likely to support health-care reform. What’s more, this racial correlation exists today, in the 2009 health-care debate; it didn’t exist when a white Democrat, Bill Clinton, tried to pass health-care reform back in 1994.

End of story? Not really.

While this correlation — and the fact that it exists for Obama and didn’t for Clinton — might seem conclusive, it actually paints a very incomplete picture. What’s changed between 1994 and today is not just the color of the president’s skin. It’s that the nation’s two major political parties are polarized along racial lines as never before. And this trend didn’t start with Obama’s run in 2008, it started in the 1990s.

Take a look at these two graphs, from Enik Rising:

Agree or disagree: “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”

difficult blacks

Agree or disagree: “Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should to the same without any special favors.”

favors blacksIn both graphs, you can see the parties splitting, starting in around 1990, with the widest gap in 2004. Whatever you think of the answers to these questions, the point is that the parties polarized regarding race, roughly coinciding with the rise of the GOP majority on the twin issues of welfare reform and crime. And that polarization hasn’t reversed.

Put another way: Whites in the South are the most anti-black group in America; a lot more whites in the South are now Republicans than were at the beginning of the 1990s.

What this all adds up to is that both of these statements can be true at the same time:

1) Many of Obama’s opponents harbor a significant amount of racial resentment against black people.

2) To quote Bill Clinton: “100% of those who are opposing him now would be against him if he were a white Democrat.”

Opposition to Obama is tied up with race because party identification in America is tied up with race. Are there some racist idiots at many of the GOP rallies? Yes. Would there be sexist idiots if Hillary Clinton were president? Also yes. Would any Democratic president be able to reform the entire health-care system — or undertake any major government-growing reform — without significant opposition from roughly the same group of people who are out protesting today? Absolutely not.


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  1. collapse expand

    Ryan,

    I’m a little confused… I’ve read your article here a couple times now, and the posts that you’ve linked to.

    What I gather is that if you disagree with the first question, and agree with the second question, then you’re racist. Or at the very least, you don’t like blacks.

    That seems far too cut and dry for me. I don’t think you can consider someone a racist based on two questions.

    The graphs and potential correlations are interesting, but its too much of a cop-out to just say everyone opposed to health care reform is against it because Mr. Obama is black.

    Many people, myself included, are opposed to health insurance reform because there’s no possible way the government can run a program as complex as health insurance better than the private sector can.

    Instead of a public option, we’d like to see some of the rules reformed, especially where taxes and buying insurance from out of state companies are concerned.

    Also, I notice that the Bill Clinton was the president during the polarization, yet you point out that it was the GOP that polarized the parties…

    You also make a point that only the GOP has racists and sexists.

    Very interesting.

    • collapse expand

      “Many people, myself included, are opposed to health insurance reform because there’s no possible way the government can run a program as complex as health insurance better than the private sector can.”

      That’s pretty funny, cause the private sector is doing such a bang up job of it now right?

      I think you should go back and reread Ryan’s piece you’ve totally missed the point of it.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Hello Slewith,

      I think you are mis-stating Mr. Sager’s argument. His is not saying that ALL Republicans are racists, just a disproportionate percentage. Nor is he saying that ALL racists are in the Republican Party, just proportionately more than the Democratic Party. I don’t think he actually said, but probably should have, that the Republican Party has been making a conscious and determined effort to recruit racists for the last 50 years by being the party in defense of racism. This was the breakthrough of Barry Goldwater and Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”, win over the southern white racist vote. Of course they are not going to put on the passé white gowns of the KKK but they will fan every racist fear (think Willie Horton).

      As an aside, while some people will indeed claim to oppose health care “because there’s no possible way the government can run a program as complex as health insurance better than the private sector can”, I would note that the US already does this, it is called Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the US Department of Defense. The first two are indeed US government run health insurance programs while the VA and DOD actually each run their own separate gigantic chain of hospitals and medical programs. Additionally, there are literally millions of Americans who do not have any health care insurance at all, clearly the private sector is not doing a “better job” of insuring them than the government can.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        “Additionally, there are literally millions of Americans who do not have any health care insurance at all, clearly the private sector is not doing a “better job” of insuring them than the government can.”

        I would argue that its not the private sectors role to insure everyone. Likewise, its not the governments role to insure everyone either.

        I’ve seen Medicare and the VA program up close; In terms of service offered and quality of care, the private sector outshines both of those institutions.

        Also – I stated that I felt like I was missing something in the article. However, I reject outright that there are “more racists” in the Republican party. Not that long ago, it was the Republican Party that led the charge for Civil Rights, while the Democratic Party outwardly opposed it.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Hello Sedwith,

          You wrote: “I would argue that its not the private sectors role to insure everyone. Likewise, its not the governments role to insure everyone either.”

          Thank you writing this, this is exactly the question that no one is discussing. Rather all of these red herrings about “death panels” and “government take-overs” we should be discussing the basic issue, SHOULD the US government ensure that all Americans have access to adequate health insurance.

          You also wrote: “I’ve seen Medicare and the VA program up close; In terms of service offered and quality of care, the private sector outshines both of those institutions.”

          Except that there is no private sector insurance that covers veterans as veterans. Any illness or injury caused during time with any armed service would be a “pre-existing” condition and most insurance companies would not cover those. The same with Medicare and Medicaid, they were created exactly because the private sector was not providing coverage to these people. I would add that the DOD has a very good medical system which provides services to millions US personnel in the armed services. It is is possible for the US government to provide medical coverage and even services, the key question is the one you raised, SHOULD IT?

          The way things work in this country is this, the government provides services where the private sector cannot do so profitably. The public sector does not manufacture televisions, the private sector is really pretty good at that sort thing, providing a better quality and price than if the government did it. On the other hand, there is no private company anywhere that could hand deliver a letter to any house in the US six days a week for less than four bits.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Sledwith, do you realize that the most successful health program to date is government-run? It’s called Medicare and without it senior citizens would be at the mercy of a profit-driven industry that can’t afford humane behavior because it screws with the dividends.

      Besides which, you’ve completely missed the point. What part of “Whites in the South are the most anti-black group in America; a lot more whites in the South are now Republicans than were at the beginning of the 1990s” don’t you understand?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      I was actually making a point pretty much opposite to: “everyone opposed to health care reform is against it because Mr. Obama is black.” My point, to simplify, is that it’s essentially a historical coincidence that racists are more opposed to health-care reform.

      If a black president (presumably a Republican) were trying to expand HSAs and deregulate the insurance industry, the racists by and large would be on his side.

      I know I’m being a bit inflammatory with the “racist” rhetoric. But the fact is there are certain groups in America that don’t much like black people. And the fact is also that most of these people are in the Republican Party. Not all the racists are, and being a Republican doesn’t make one racist. But there are patterns to how the parties are organized in America (most of the anti-Semites, for example, are probably in the Democratic Party at this point). And it’s silly to pretend they don’t exist.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    “But there are patterns to how the parties are organized in America (most of the anti-Semites, for example, are probably in the Democratic Party at this point).”

    What? That’s crazy!! Please justify this outrageous statement. You’ll be hard-pressed to find ACTUAL anti-Semites in the Democratic Party. Those noxious people are generally found to the right of the Republican Party, in truth.

  3. collapse expand

    I agree with you that all opposition to Obama isn’t race motivated. But I cannot help myself thinking that many who yell “Socialism” today yelled “Communist” in the 1950s and 1960s as code for race.
    See archive photo at
    http://rectonoverso.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/quand-ca-change/

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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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